northern white rhino
July 30, 2015

Death of rare Northern White Rhino leaves only 4 remaining

Nabiré, a 31-year-old female Northern White Rhino, died at the Dvur Kralove zoo in the Czech Republic this week, and her death could be the final blow to chances of Northern White survival. Nabiré was born in the zoo in 1983 and lived there all her life, and now there are only four animals from the subspecies (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) alive in the world, three females and a male.

Now there are four

Nola, the only female outside Africa, lives in the San Diego Zoo but is too old to breed. The other two females, Najin and Fatu, live in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy reserve in Kenya. The females are no longer capable of natural reproduction – Najin is too old and Fatu has a uterine problem. The reserve is also home to the only surviving male, the 42 year old Sudan who is under 24-hour armed guard. To further deter poachers, his horn has been removed.

The Dvur Kralove zoo announced the death on Tuesday, and according to a statement, Nabiré’s death was due to the rupture of a “large pathological cyst”.

The kindest rhino

Zoo director Premysl Rabas said, “It is a terrible loss. Nabiré was the kindest rhino ever bred in our zoo. It is not just that we were very fond of her. Her death is a symbol of the catastrophic decline of rhinos due to a senseless human greed. Her species is on the very brink of extinction.”

“The pathological cyst inside the body of Nabiré was huge. There was no way to treat it,” said Jiri Hruby, a Dvur Kralove rhino curator.

The zoo has been involved in captive breeding efforts for 40 years as the rhinos have steadily been hunted to the brink of extinction in the wild. Nabiré was part of the breeding project, but continuing problems with uterine cysts meant she could not conceive naturally.

Nabiré could still help the species survive

However, zoo workers believe her left ovary may still have been healthy when she died. It was removed immediately after the death and transferred to a specialized laboratory in Italy so a part of Nabiré could live on and become a source of eggs for in vitro fertilization. It’s a very long shot, but the end result could be an artificially made embryo. Tissue samples were also collected for research and possible reproduction studies.

“We are aware that our chances are slim, but the hopes are still alive,” said Rabas.

Any attempts at artificial reproduction would probably need a Northern White Rhino embryo to be implanted into a Southern White Rhino female, the subspecies’ closest living relative.

Northern Whites once roamed a vast area of East and Central Africa. The highly valuable horn, made of keratin just like human hair and fingernails, was their ultimate downfall. Unfortunately, extinction now looks more likely than ever.

(Image credit: Thinkstock)