Northern Whites and Western Blacks

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Back in February I wrote a post briefly covering 2014’s Rhino poaching situation in South Africa. In that post I noted the importance of the Rhino as an ecosystem engineer (that being a species that physically alters its ecosystem in such a way that supports other species) and importantly one of the last megaherbivores left on Earth. The South African Savannah without the Rhino would be a much less diverse place with a very small number of dominant grass species supporting a rather narrow range of species. In that post I deliberately avoided the fates of their counterparts the Northern White and Western Black Rhino as it seemed to complicate the story I was telling. Today, with the death of one of the last 4 Northern Whites it seems appropriate to go back and tell those species stories.

The Western Black Rhinoceros was a subspecies of the Black Rhinoceros which was thought to be genetically distinct. Compared to other Black Rhinos the Western Black had several distinct features including a square based horn that identified it as part of a sub species. The majority of the population was thought to be found within the borders of Cameroon and it is there that the last known animal was recorded (in 2006). Widespread hunting during the early part of the 20th Century led to a rapid decline in the number of Black Rhinos generally across Africa.  When this collapse in the population was noted protection measures were put in place as early as the 1930s. These protection measures must have fallen well short of the needs of the animal because between 1970 and 1992 the Black Rhino population generally lost as many as 96% of its numbers. By 2000 only 10 Western Blacks were thought to exist in the wild and by 2001 this number had fallen to 5. A subspecies that had existed on the planet for between 7 and 8 million years had fallen to poaching in a very short period of time. This kind of extinction is very common in animals with a very low level of fecundity (reproduction rate) as they are unable to replace their numbers in line with the losses.

On the 22nd of November 2015 the world lost Nola, one of the last 4 Northern White Rhinos. The Northern White’s story is similar to that of the Western Black with hunting and the expansion of human settlement the main causes of its decline. The last known wild Northern Whites resided in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as recently as 2007 but are thought to have died leaving the subspecies extinct in the wild. The last 3 Northern White Rhinos are composed of one male (42, named Sudan) and two females (Najin and Fatu) all reside in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya after being moved from a zoo in the Czech Republic. They are thought to be unable to breed leaving IVF the only realistic option available to conservation workers. By taking eggs from the females and sperm from the male they may be able to implant embryos in Southern White Rhinos which are close relatives.

Normally I try to end my posts with something optimistic but this is one of those rare cases in which I don’t see any easy way out. It is likely that we are going to lose the Northern White Rhino much like water drips from a tap, slowly but inexorably.

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