As many of us brave planes, trains and automobiles to travel home for the holidays, this weekend, a group of four African northern white rhinoceroses (Ceratotherium simum cottoni) were also (ancestrally) homeward bound—though under a more somber air than befits the holiday season.
In a last bid effort to save their subspecies, Najin, Fatu, Suni, and Sudan (two female and two male rhinos) left their home in Prague’s Dvur Kralove Zoo and flew to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a wildlife preserve in Kenya. The four rhinos represent fully half the population of their subspecies—only eight northern white rhinos are believed to exist (all are in captivity)—and these travelers are the only ones capable of breeding.
Attempts to breed the rhinos in captivity have been mostly unsuccessful, with only one calf (Fatu, whose mother was Najin) born in the past 10 years—not enough to save them from a path towards extinction. Officials hope that the rhino’s natural environment will be more conducive to producing offspring. The rhinos’ numbers have been decimated as a result of relentless poaching and civil unrest in their natural habitat.
The move is not without its critics, who fear that the long years spent in captivity will make the rhinos more vulnerable in their new environment, that the endeavor is “too little, too late,” and that the money would have better served other rhino species.
Officials hope that even if the rhinos do not mate within their own subspecies, they will still pass on and preserve a portion of their genes by mating with southern white rhinoceroses who also reside in the preserve.
As the rhinos spent their first day being slowly introduced to their new home, Berry White, a rhino keeper involved in the move, gave hope to their future:
"They’re doing great," White said Monday morning outside of Sudan’s pen, which had a patch of African grass growing in the middle of it. "He’s grazing now. He’s grazing for the first time in 33 years."
Sudan in March 2008. Photo: NowPublic.
Rhino specialist Elodie Sampere added:
Sudan, who is the oldest male, came out this morning and went into a bigger pen that he has and was rubbing his horn against a tree and eating grass and looking really curious and happy. Sudan was actually born in Africa, and was taken to the Czech Republic when he was a year and a half. So he’s really coming home, and it was a really emotional moment for all of us today when he came out.