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Sudan death opens Pandora’s box as experts clash

Bernard Gitau @benagitau

Bowing down with their hats off to mourn and pay their last respect to Sudan, the last male of the Northern white rhino species, caregivers and security guards shed rare tears for an animal.

They marched and saluted as a final tribute to a friend they interacted with for more than nine years since his arrival from a zoo in the Czech Republic.

Sudan’s plaque was erected two weeks ago under an acacia tree, on the vast tufty savannah in Ol Pejeta conservancy, joining 19 other rhinos that died at the hand of poachers.

The final ceremony was celebrated by local and international conservationists but the death has opened a Pandora’s box. Scientists, biologists and conservationists are now clashing over whether Northern and Southern white rhinos are different species.

Some scientists, conservationists mostly from Africa, have even gone ahead to term Sudan’s death as the “end of the hoax”. Dr Mordecai Ogada, a carnivore ecologist and author of The Big Conservation Lie termed the hyped memorial service “a prank by Western conservationists”.

He and his group are opposed to the species classification of Northern and Southern white rhinos claiming it is a ploy to create an imaginary crisis.

“The western-based paradigms of conservation are doomed to fail because they not only disregard local perspectives and practices but also characterised by greed in the white-dominated conservation NGOs,” Ogada said.

He said the story peddled by the NGOs is that wildlife in Africa is in danger, and the threat is African people, and the saviours of wildlife are white. “Sudan’s death means the end of a particular line of funding, sob story, and source of fame. Bluntly put, the end of a hoax,” he said.

Until 2010, biologists considered the two white rhinos– the Northern and Southern– as two sub-species. However, Colin Groves from the Australian National University and his colleagues argued they are two different species – Ceratotherium simum and Ceratotherium cottoni.

“We compared the cranial morphology (bone structure of the head), dental morphology (the structure of the teeth), body measurements, appearance, behaviour and the genetics of the two groups and came to the conclusion that they were divergent enough to be recognised as two different species,” says Prithiviraj Fernando, an elephant biologist at the Centre for Conservation and Research, Sri Lanka, who collaborated with Groves on the study.

Groves who died in November 2017 said, “The genetic analysis of mitochondrial and nuclear DNA demonstrated that the two groups had been genetically separated for over a million years.”

In 2016, Eric Harley and other geneticists from the University of Cape Town, South Africa, examined the mitochondrial DNA of the two white rhinos once again and concluded they were sub-species. Northern white rhinos produce offspring with southern white rhinos, vindicating the champions of sub-species status.

The debate comes as the Ol Pejeta Conservancy is trying to raise Sh10 million for Intro Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) to save the Northern sub-species. “It is a complex debate.

We await one more paper currently in publication (that supports the “separate species” argument),” a statement from the conservancy read. Ogada’s book calls on Africans to reclaim discussions on management of their natural resources.

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