Katherine Gallagher, Treehugger | April 23, 2021
Northern white rhinos are global ambassadors for African wildlife, and sadly, living examples of the tragedies that can befall a species due to human influence. The second-largest of the land mammals, northern white rhinos have been poached to the brink of extinction and pushed from their native ranges throughout northern and central Africa. Now, only two remain on Earth — a female named Najin and her daughter, Fatu.
Learn what separates the northern white rhino subspecies from other members of the rhinoceros family and how their near-extinction became their defining trait.
1. Northern White Rhinos Aren’t White
Contrary to their name, northern white rhinos are more of a dark grey color than white. According to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the name comes from the Afrikaans (a West Germanic language spoken throughout South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe) word “weit,” meaning “wide.” The animal was originally described this way in reference to its wide mouth.
2. They Are a Smaller Subspecies of White Rhino
White rhinos are divided into two subspecies — southern and northern. Southern white rhinos are generally larger, about 4,400 to 5,300 pounds, compared to the northern 3,000 to 3,500 pounds, and have longer bodies with a more concave skull and smaller teeth. Genetic evidence indicates that the southern and northern white rhino subspecies only diverged between 0.46 and 0.97 million years ago.
3. Northern White Rhinos Are Grazers Rather than Browsers
Northern white rhinos prefer to graze on short grasses lower to the ground, as opposed to their their black rhino cousins, who browse on thicker roughage such as thorny acacia tree branches. A bit like lawnmowers, northern white rhinos sweep the ground with their wide mouths, which are broader and flatter than a black rhino’s. In comparison, a black rhino has a prehensile, pointed lip that looks more like a hook in order to grab hardier plants and bushes.
4. Their Near Extinction Is Due to Poaching
A combination of political instability and increased demand for rhino horn led to rampant poaching among the remaining northern white rhinos, and it still hasn’t stopped. The international trade of rhino horn was banned in 1977, but rhino poaching was still reaching record highs as recently as 2015. The poaching industry has gotten so bad that scientists have contemplated flooding the market with fake rhino horns made from horse hair in order to diminish quality.
5. They Once Ranged Across Central and Northern Africa
The northern white rhino once roamed over portions of Chad, the Central African Republic, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. IUCN experts estimate that the population numbered around 2,360 back in 1960, before poaching led directly to their extinction in the wild. In 2003, numbers had fallen to just 30 individuals, and by 2005, there were only four. Occasionally, there are rumors of possible survivors in South Sudan, but there is never adequate evidence.
6. Their Southern Counterparts Are a Conservation Success Story
Considering the bleak conservation outlook for northern white rhinos, it is somewhat surprising to learn that white rhinos on the whole aren’t considered endangered. Southern white rhinos went from less than 200 individuals in the early 1900s to more than 20,000 thanks to conservation efforts and protective measures implemented by local governments, according to the International Rhino Foundation. Unfortunately, the northern white rhino hasn’t been so lucky.
7. The Last Two Northern White Rhinos Left on Earth Can’t Breed
For their protection, two males and two females were flown from their zoos in the Czech Republic to Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy in the early 2000s in hopes that their natural environment would inspire them to breed. Sadly, the last northern white rhino male, Sudan, died in March 2018. He left behind his daughter, Najin, and his granddaughter, Fatu, neither of whom can hold viable pregnancies.
8. They Are Protected With Armed Guards 24 Hours a Day
Najin and Fatu are still living at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya today, in a 700-acre enclosure. To protect them from being poached for their valuable horns, the rhinos are under constant armed guard. A group of faithful conservationists also maintains a healthy diet of vegetables for Najin and Fatu, and provides plenty of space for them to graze for grasses in their native habitats.
9. The Northern Subspecies Is Generally More Calm Than Other Rhinos
Dr. Joseph Okori, head of the WWF Rhino Programme and accomplished wildlife veterinarian, says that northern white rhinos are known for being calmer than black rhinos. Where other species might act aggressively when faced with threats, a northern white rhino is more likely to respond by simply running away. And while they do run, they tend to only go so far as to reach a minimally safe distance before stopping within open grassland, one of the reasons why they’re most susceptible to poaching.
10. They Are Difficult to Breed
Their gestation period is about 16 months, and females are unable to get pregnant until they are between six and seven years old. Even then, they only give birth every three to four years, since mothers and calves stay together for at least 36 months. At the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, all attempts to reproduce the animals naturally since Fatu was born (even with members of the southern white rhino subspecies) have proven unsuccessful.
11. Their Lifespan Is 30 Years in Captivity
In the wild, both males and females have an average lifespan of 46 to 50, but unfortunately, most rhinos are poached by humans before they have the chance to reach that age. According to Animal Diversity Web, northern white rhinos live an average of 27 to 30 years in captivity, though Sudan, the last northern while rhino born in the wild, died at age 45. Four years before that, the second-to-last male, named Suni, died of natural causes at age 34.
12. Northern White Rhino Horns Are Believed to Cure Hangovers
Rhino horns, which are made up primarily of keratin proteins, have been used for centuries in traditional medicines and to demonstrate social status, especially in Vietnam and China. Although the medicinal properties of rhino horn has been studied less than other products of the illegal wildlife trade, at least two studies outside of Asia have found that rhino horn has no pharmacological effect at all on humans.
13. Some Experts Think They Shouldn’t Be Saved
Save the Rhino International believes that funding and research efforts should be going towards other critically endangered species, especially those with better chances than the northern white rhino. What’s more, most of the animal’s natural range has been lost, providing additional conservation hurdles should the subspecies be revived.
14. Northern White Rhinos Were Last Sighted in the Wild in 2006
The last confirmed subpopulation of northern white rhinos was spotted in Garamba National Park, located in the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. In 2006, researchers conducted surveys, foot patrols, and aerial reconnaissance to confirm that no live rhinos remained in the area. Further surveys in 2007 found no fresh signs of rhinos, either, the last rhinos in the national park believed to have been taken by poachers.
15. Their Survival Depends on Assisted Reproduction Techniques
After Sudan’s death, scientists harvested viable eggs from both Najin and Fatu, fertilizing them with frozen sperm from two male northern rhinos before they passed, hoping to use a southern white rhino surrogate. Artificial insemination has already proven successful in southern white rhinos, and considering the two subspecies have a genetic diversity of only 0.1%, hope remains high that the southern subspecies could be the key to securing the northern white rhino’s recovery.