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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Going, Going, Almost Gone...

"The beauty and genius of a work of art may be reconceived, though its first material expression be destroyed; a vanished harmony may yet again inspire the composer; but when the last individual of a race of living beings breathes no more, another heaven and another earth must pass before such a one can be again."

- William Beebe

When I was younger, my father took me on what - to a thirteen-year-old zoo fanatic - was the coolest vacation imaginable - San Diego.  We hit the San Diego Zoo, SeaWorld San Diego, and the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography Aquarium, but my favorite animal attraction was the world famous San Diego Wild Animal Park.

There were a tremendous number of "firsts" for me on that trip - my first koala, my first okapi, my first Tasmanian devil - so it probably wasn't too surprising that, when our guide pointed out a small herd of white rhinos in one of the paddocks, I didn't get too tremendously excited.  I mean, rhinos are cool and I love them, but the zoo back home had white rhinos, so they weren't that high on my "must see" list.  If I'd known better how the future would have turned out, I might have taken a closer look.

The white rhinos we had back home - along with 99% of the other white rhinos on earth - were southerners.  What I had seen in San Diego, on the other hand, were some of the last northern white rhinoceros - a critically endangered subspecies - left in the world.  That herd in San Diego - and some individuals in the Czech Republic - represented all that was left of a population of animals that once thrived across Central Africa.  Poachers - armed with weapons obtained easily from the region's endless civil wars - decimated the wild population.  Attempts were made to establish rhinos in sanctuaries in Africa.  They have not succeeded.

With the recent death of the male Suni, the total global population of northern white rhino is six.  When one more dies, you'll be able to count the numbers on one hand.

The northern white rhino won't be the first rhino subspecies to go extinct - very recently, the West African black rhinoceros went extinct as well.  Somehow we haven't lost a whole species of rhino in modern times, but unless things change dramatically, I can't believe that the Javan and Sumatran rhinos are going to hold on for that much longer. The loss of a subspecies isn't as disastrous as the loss of a species - I can imagine that, if things ever stabilize in Central Africa, southern white rhinos could be introduced in their stead (similar to how Aldabra tortoises have been used as a surrogate for now-extinct giant tortoises on islands throughout the Indian Ocean).  Also, in our new genetic age, sperm, eggs, and other biological materials can be frozen and possibly used again in the future.

Still, the loss of a unique population of endangered animals is a grim reminder of how tenuous the fate of an endangered species can be.  I was pretty young - my early teens - when I saw the northern white rhino for the first and only time.  I remember our guide taking a moment to remark upon the ancient lineages of the rhino family, extending back millions of years.  I don't think I ever suspected that those million-year lineages might end in my lifetime.

A southern white rhinoceros... soon probably to be the only white rhinoceros left on earth

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