The Life and Death of the World's Last Male Northern White Rhino

30 April 2018 Ami Vitale

The Life and Death of the World's Last Male Northern White Rhino


Filmmaker and photographer Ami Vitale writes about her trip to Kenya to say goodbye to Sudan – the last male northern white rhino in the world.

Nine years ago, I heard about a plan to airlift four of the world’s last northern white rhinos from a zoo in the Czech Republic to Kenya. It sounded like a storyline for a Disney film: captive animals returning to the wild dusty plains. In reality, it was a desperate, last-ditch effort to save a branch of the rhino species.

At the time, there were only eight of these rhinos left, all living in captivity. At the end of March this year, Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros in the world, died, aged 45. That leaves two females.

When I first saw this gentle, hulking creature in the Czech snow, surrounded by smokestacks and humanity, it seemed so unfair. He looked ancient, part of a species that has lived on this planet for millions of years, yet could not survive mankind.

Sudan and three other rhinos left the Dvůr Králové Zoo on a cold night in December 2009. They were brought to the Kenyan savannas at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The hope was to breed them. The air, water and food – not to mention room to roam – might stimulate them, experts thought. The offspring could then be used to repopulate Africa. Failing that, they would be cross-bred with another subspecies, the southern white rhinos, to preserve the genes.

That Sudan had been moved to the Dvůr Králové Zoo may have saved his life in the first place; the last known wild northern white rhinos were poached in 2004.

I remember so clearly when Sudan first set foot again on the African soil. Torrential rains came moments after we arrived. He put his head in the air to smell the rains and immediately rolled around on the ground. It was his first mud bath since he left the continent as a two-year-old back in 1975.

Earlier this year I returned to Kenya to say goodbye. Moments before he died, Sudan was surrounded by the people who had committed their lives to protecting him and giving him the good life he enjoyed. There were the directors and people from the Czech zoo, plus staffers and his six dedicated keepers from Ol Pejeta, who spent more time with him than with their own children.

Most people had been crying for days. I gave Sudan one last scratch on his ear. He leaned his heavy head into mine and the skies opened up, just as they had when he arrived here nine years ago. He perked his head up in the pouring rain. All was silent except for one go-away-bird.

Sudan’s death could mean the extinction of his species, though scientists are considering options involving the two remaining females, including stem cell procedures and harvesting eggs. Poaching, meanwhile, is not slowing down. It’s possible, even likely, that rhinos – and elephants and other plains animals – will be functionally extinct in our lifetime. Amazing work is being done to combat poaching, but those doing it need more support.

If there’s meaning in Sudan’s passing, it’s that all hope is not lost. Let it be our wake-up call.

This article first appeared in issue #560 of The Big Issue.

Ami Vitale is a Nikon Ambassador, filmmaker and photographer for National Geographic. She is raising funds for Ol Pejeta by selling prints of the northern white rhino at