Catching a glimpse of imminent extinction is not easy. You have to book in advance, absorb the facts offered in a small lecture, climb into a safari vehicle, pass through various gates and fences and be surveyed by a number of armed guards. And, even then, the last northern white rhinos on the planet are not immediately visible.
Then, in the shade of a spreading acacia tree, you can just make out two large pale grey rumps. Mother and daughter, Najin and Fatu, are having an afternoon nap. Fortunately we have come equipped with a rhino keeper and a bucket of horse pellets. The ladies, it seems, are fond of both. The keeper rattles the bucket and, beneath the tree, one huge head lifts; then the second. Our presence has been noted but it takes a little longer for an audience to be granted.
Having eventually succumbed to enticement, both rhinos rise to their feet. It’s a struggle because they’ve made a cool dusty pit for themselves and now plumes of grey dust rise up around them like phantoms. Facing us head-on, the two huge creatures survey the safari vehicle with the rhino equivalent of a raised eyebrow. Their keeper throws an arc of horse pellets on to the sparse savannah grass. An ear, delicate as a large grey tulip, swivels. Then the rhinos amble towards us. There’s a lot of snuffling and munching as the pellets are consumed. But no unseemly rushing or bolting – this is a very dignified encounter.
The ladies are magnificence incarnate. Their sheer bulk is intimidating. Seemingly impenetrable, their grey skin is deeply scored by thousands of thorny encounters; and huge overhangs of flesh protect their joints like flanges on a medieval suit of armour. And the more you look at them, the more you are overcome by their grace and beauty; and the more in awe. As we watch, another rhino, a southern white, comes over to join them. ‘She’s a friend’ says our guide, ‘they like company.’
It wrings the heart to look at the last two members of a species that first evolved 55 million years ago. The rhinoceros has been one of this planet’s most enduring creatures. Arriving in the wake of the dinosaurs, it has endured the Ice Age, numerous bouts of climate change and the need to migrate across entire continents. In the course of its evolution it has sported single horns over a metre long, double horns growing side by side, horns in its lower jaw and an entire wardrobe of woolly coats. Fossil records also reveal that it has survived attack by giant crocodiles and prehistoric hyenas. But all this has meant nothing thanks to the arrival of the new boy on the planet, the 5 million-year-old up-start known as man. And thanks to his attentions a creature that once ranged over Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of Congo is considered extinct in the wild. And only two of its kind remain in captivity.
And we’re looking at them.
It was in 2009 that four of the planet’s last surviving seven northern white rhinos were brought to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy from a zoo in the Czech Republic. It was hoped that back in Africa they might breed. But they didn’t. Soon there were only three northern white rhinos on the planet: Najin, Fatu and their father/grandfather Sudan. Then it was discovered that neither Najin nor Fatu could breed. Frantic efforts were made to find a mate for Sudan.
But it was too late. In 2019, at the age of 45, Sudan breathed his last. And, while hopes exist for the creation of a hybrid by means of assisted reproduction using eggs from Fatu and Najin, the genetically purest form of the northern white rhino is about to bid us goodbye.
At the end of the visit, which lasts little more than half an hour in all, we are driven out of the specially constructed enclosure that protects rhino royalty and on to the rolling savannah. There’s a lone tree and beneath it a series of humps. As we draw closer, we see that they are gravestones. All commemorate rhinos and the inscriptions make hard reading. At the front, larger than the rest, is a stone that reads, SUDAN. After 55 million years, he was the last man standing.