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Beginning of the end as last male Rhino fights for life

Bernard Gitau @benagitau

Sudan! Name springs war, oil, strife, country, human suffering… to most heads. But not in ours when we settled for the three-hour drive to Nanyuki. In fact, the town in north-central Kenya that boasts the end of a railway line, the equator crossing and a wealth of foreign military presence out to train in the surrounding Laikipia plateaus is far removed from these.

Yet, strangely, our mission was as interconnected to the Sudanese strife as it was sombre. But the town was not our destination. One of the numerous conservancies sharing the plains, Ol Pejeta, was. The park that lies on the plains that sweeps enthrallingly for kilometres is a safe haven for numerous endangered species.

Home to Jackson’s hartebeest, Grevy’s zebra and the sociable African wild dog, the conservancy protects the threatened species from the noose of extinction. But they, too, were not our primary focus. Sudan was.

And his is a sad tale of human selfishness and unimaginable capacity to destroy. He is the last living male Northern White Rhino, not in Ol Pejeta, not in the confounded expanses of Africa’s wilderness, but in the whole great world.

And he is nearing his end. It was a disturbing piece of intelligence that troubled me for the 200-kilometre journey from the capital city to Serat gate on Rumuruti road via which we accessed the conservancy. After paper work at the gate, a security guard waved us into the park, but even the “remember you are food” warning could not override the sickly feeling of witnessing a devastation my kind has wrought upon other species.

Finally, we arrive at Morani, home to Sudan and the last two surviving female rhinos of his kind. Once a strong, fearsome mix of horn, beef and testosterone, he now lay on his deathbed, chewing cud, seemingly resigned to the inevitable.

A combination of age and disease has left the monstrous animal an invalid with a team of veterinarians working round the clock to make his final days as comfortable as possible. Besides a nauseating infection on his rear right leg that the doctors have been battling since last year, the left leg has also since developed arthritis.

The only living female Northern White Rhinos Fatu and Najin may soon be without a male of their sub-species unless Sudan makes a miraculous recovery. Photo/BERNARD ORWONGO

The massive beast now has to be physically rolled over at intervals to prevent bedsores. It is a terribly distressing scene. It is so much so, we are not allowed to take pictures. The conservancy management has banned publicity.

“We are keeping off press and visitors to give Sudan privacy and comfort during his last days on earth.

He is living on bonus years and every moment he is with us is a blessing,” his caretaker, James Mwenda tells us.

It was hard to imagine that we were looking at the last of a sub-species that once stretched from Chad to the DRC.

A population of more than 2,000 in 1960 shrunk down to just 15 in 1984.

Sudan and seven others were rescued from the midst of Sudan (the country) wars and taken to a Czech zoo but when breeding efforts failed, four were flown to Kenya in 2009 where it was hoped the more natural environment would bear better fruits. It didn’t.

“He is now 45, which is equivalent to 90 human years. We do not think he will last much longer,” Ol Pejeta veterinary surgeon Dr Stephen Ngulu says. And while Sudan is living with the only surviving females of her sub-species, natural breeding is not only nonviable but also practically impossible at this point. The females —Fatu and Najin –are not only elderly but may also be directly related to Sudan.

Mwenda says Najin, 27, is Sudan’s daughter while Fatu, Najin’s daughter is naturally his grandchild. “It would be cross-breeding at its best,” he says and adds that Najin is also old, weak and cannot carry pregnancy to full term.

“Fatu’s uterus, on the other hand, is not in good condition and must be rectified before she can carry pregnancy.” Dr Ngulu says scientists have turned to the lab for ideas on how to save this dying species. “We have harvested sex cells from Sudan and other males before they died and have made steps toward In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF),” he said.

He, however, said they are yet to collect ova from female rhinos indicating vets from Czech would be in the country by end of the year for the exercise. “Collection of ova is a complicated and delicate exercise that requires better equipment and experience than we have,” he added. Dr Ngulu said Southern White Rhinos will be surrogate mothers but the effort might take more than a decade.

Yet, despite the damage we have already done, heavily armed guards, complete with night vision goggles have to guard Sudan 24 hours. Even on his deathbed, especially then —when he is most vulnerable— poachers might attempt to get him for his horn.

His keepers are also, unfortunately, considering ‘mercy killing’ if the pain becomes too much. “Euthanasia will be explored if we feel he is suffering too much and won’t recover, we do not want him to suffer unnecessarily,” Dr Ngulu says.

As I turn away from Sudan’s shed, I shake my head partly out of disbelief that my own can be so unashamedly savage, but also to shake back the tears threatening to break out because of the desolation I had just witnessed.

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