With 1 male left worldwide, northern white rhinos under guard 24 hours

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Sudan is the only male northern white rhino left worldwide

Total of 3 northern white rhinos are left worldwide -- Sudan and two females

Experts trying various ways to save the subspecies, including in vitro fertilization

Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya CNN  — 

A new study may hold the key to saving the northern white rhino’s rapid descent into extinction.

He grazes under the hot sun, his massive head lowered to the ground, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya.

When he’s not napping in his enclosure, he waddles around the sprawling savannah, stopping briefly to drink water from a concrete hole.

But Sudan is not just any rhino. He’s the last known male northern white rhino left in the world.

For an animal on the verge of extinction, the fate of the subspecies rests on his ability to conceive with the two female northern white rhinos at the conservancy.

Sudan and the two female rhinos – Fatu and Najin – are the last three northern white rhinos left in the world.

24-hour security

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OL PEJETA CONSERVANCY, KENYA, JULY 2011:  A four man anti-poaching team permanently guards Northern White Rhino on Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, 13 July 2011. The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is an important “not-for-profit” wildlife conservancy in the Laikipia District of Kenya and the largest sanctuary for black rhinos in East Africa. It is also the home of 4 of the world's remaining 8 Northern White Rhino, the worlds most endangered animal. There has been an increase in poaching incidents on Ol Pejeta recently, in line with a massive worldwide increase in rhino poaching linked to the rise in the Asian middle class. Anti-poaching teams provide close protection to the rhino, with 24 hour observation over all rhino on Ol Pejeta and 24 hour armed guard protection over the 4 Northern White Rhino who are kept in their own Boma area. The team have developed extraordinary relationships with these Rhino, leaning on them, scratching them and displaying tremendous affection towards these most endangered of animals. Each of the men in these teams feels a genuine vocation towards the protection of these animals, something the rhino seem to sense, and this emerges on a daily basis as the men walk with the rhino through their day. (Photo by Brent Stirton/Reportage for National Geographic.)
Rhino receives armed guards
01:10 - Source: CNN

Sudan and his female companions live at the conservancy, where experts are scrambling to ensure the subspecies does not go extinct.

The animals are under 24-hour protection by armed guards. Rhinos are targeted by poachers, fueled by the belief in Asia that their horns cure various ailments. Experts say the rhino horn is becoming more lucrative than drugs.

In addition to round-the-clock security, the conservancy has put radio transmitters on the animals and dispatches incognito rangers into neighboring communities to gather intelligence on poaching.

The conservancy is also raising funds to help equip and train rangers who guard the rhinos.

On the verge of extinction

At 42, Sudan is elderly in rhino years. Fatu, 15, is a spring chicken, while Najin is 25.

Though the three northern white rhinos are physiologically healthy, age might be a factor, says George Paul, the deputy veterinarian at the conservancy.

“Sudan is currently old and may not be able to naturally mount and mate with a female,” he says.

In addition, he has a low sperm count, which complicates natural and scientific efforts, experts say.

Najin could conceive, but her hind legs are so weak, she may be unable to support a mounted male.

“There has been recorded mating between different pairs over the last few years, but not conceptions,” Paul says. “Based on a recent health examination conducted, both animals have a regular estrus cycle, but no conception has been recorded.”

And if one is not recorded soon, the beloved animal will go extinct.

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Alternative methods to conceive

In a race against time, international experts are resorting to science to try to sustain the subspecies.

The southern white rhinos are not as endangered – Ol Pejeta has 32 – and while the offspring would not be 100% northern white rhino, it would be better than nothing, experts said.

A committee at the conservancy is also looking at various alternative reproduction techniques, including in vitro fertilization.

“In other countries, success has been achieved with embryo transfer in a different rhino species, thus that, as a technique, can be presupposed to be the most promising,” Paul says. “However, consultations are ongoing amongst different reproductive technique experts on the way forward.”

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Countdown to extinction

The need to preserve the northern white rhino is dire.

“Realistically, we are looking at these animals dying in the next decade or so. But hopefully, using artificial methods of reproduction, we might be able to bring them back in the future,” Paul says. “This might mean that it will happen when the current animals are already deceased, but it could happen.”

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy acquired northern white rhinos – two males and two females – in 2009 from a zoo in the Czech Republic. Both male northern white rhinos died, leaving the fate of the subspecies on the female rhinos.

There are no known northern white rhinos left in the wild. A total of three remain in captivity worldwide – all in Kenya,

Sudan, the only male left, is in a company of one.

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