Northern white rhino in a pond

The Heartless Darkness


February 11, 2015

Under the Cover of Night

Shots rang out, shattering the darkness. The mighty creature grunted in pain, stumbling to the ground. Half a dozen men clad in black and wearing night-vision goggles descended on their victim. As one sawed off the rhino’s horn at the base, another took the ears and tail to be worn as a muti fetish to protect the poachers from getting killed or caught on future hunts.

This was the bloody fate of hundreds of rhinoceroses slaughtered last year, with no end to the madness in sight. Even the rhino’s thick skin, fast charge, and camouflage cannot save it from high-powered firearms, organized crime rings, and the apparently insatiable market for rhino horn.  

Close up side view of rhino

And Then There Were Four

Of the few rhinos still on the planet, the northern white rhino had the unfortunate fate to live in African nations rocked by civil war and abject poverty. In the 1960s, there were more than 2,000 rhinos roaming in parts of Chad, the Central Africa Republic, Sudan, Zaire, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Uganda. But this subspecies has paid dearly as a result of the ongoing wars surrounding it.

Northern white rhinos have been mercilessly poached for decades; the last few survivors had to be rounded up and relocated to wildlife parks and sanctuaries. In 2014, two of the remaining males died of age-related causes: Suni, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, and Angalifu, the elderly male at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Both of these animals died of natural causes, but with so few of their kind left, it was small consolation. That left only four northern white rhinos left in the world, including a female named Nola at the Safari Park.  

Rhino in Safari Park East Africa Exhibit

Nola: Beloved Inspiration

For nearly 30 years, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park cared for a pair of northern white rhinos with the hopes of breeding them. But the spirited female, Nola, and her dapper would-be mate, Angalifu, never seemed to hit if off. Then Angalifu was gone, and Nola was well past reproductive age. To keep her company, she was paired with a southern white rhino named Chuck, and the two buddies were often seen lounging at their waterhole.

Ever the grande dame, elderly and gentle Nola received extra-special care, personal attention that was only given to her because of her close and longstanding bond with her keepers. Because her toenails grew rogue sometimes, she was given regular “pedicures.” On “spa day,” keepers followed her in a truck across the South Africa field exhibit until she found a comfortable place to lie down, then two keepers trimmed her toenails, one brushed her with a stiff-bristled deck brush—a massage that she loved—and another kept a close watch for other animals and safety.

If love could have made the difference, Nola would have lived forever. Sadly, she had been battling a bacterial infection for some time, which the veterinary and animal care staff had successfully treated, but when it returned, Nola’s system could no longer fight it. She passed away peacefully at the Safari Park in November 2015. “We were honored to be her keepers for the rest of her life,” said Jane Kennedy, lead keeper at the Park. A heartfelt outpouring of sympathy and condolences followed Nola’s passing, as people around the world paid tribute to this grand old gal who had impressed and inspired so many during her lifetime.

Even though she is no longer with us, Nola continues to inspire. She was not only a much-loved individual in her own right—she was also a symbol of the extinction crisis facing rhinos around the world.

Nola, Nola with Barbara Durant, Nola with keepers

Challenges and Successes

San Diego Zoo Global is committed to saving species from extinction. Through collaborative, science-based, multidisciplinary conservation efforts at the Safari Park, we have successfully added the births of 92 southern white rhinos, 66 greater one-horned rhinos, and 13 black rhinos to the worldwide populations. But while the southern white rhino is a conservation success story, the northern white rhino, with only three animals remaining as of 2016, is very close to disappearing forever.  

rhino close up

Rhinos on Ice

Our genetics division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has been hot on the trail of preserving cell samples of wildlife in its Frozen Zoo®, including genetic material from 12 northern white rhinos, including Angalifu and Nola. From these samples, Dr. Ollie Ryder, genetics director, and his staff can generate what are called pluripotent stem cells, which can be triggered to create any tissue in the body. It is possible that technical advances in the future might lead to white rhino surrogate pregnancies, using these types of cells to accomplish reproduction. 

scientist at Frozen Zoo

Killing Fields

The uptick in demand for rhino horn is fairly recent. It has gone from subsistence hunting by local people to highly organized international crime rings profiting from Asia’s demand for rhino horn. Even museums and auction houses are falling victim to “rhino head heists” as thieves make off with the horned loot. Rhino horn concoctions have been prescribed in traditional Asian medicine for about 2,000 years, but until the late 1800s, the effect on the species was manageable. By the early 1900s, however, extensive trophy hunting had been added to the mix, decimating the white rhino populations. Over the next few decades, concerted conservation efforts to protect rhinos made it illegal to hunt them and were able to slow the decline. Fortunately the white rhino species recovered somewhat, although never to its original numbers. In the 1990s, demand was reduced when rhino horn was removed from the Chinese pharmacopeia, and alternatives for dagger handles were used in Yemen. Only about 15 rhinos were poached in South Africa annually from 1990 to 2007.

But then an alarming trend emerged: in 2008, 83 southern white rhinos were illegally killed by poachers; then the next year, 122 were poached. In 2012, 688 rhinos were destroyed, and an unprecedented 1,004 rhinos were slaughtered in 2013. In 2014, poaching was the worst yet: a horrifying 1,215 rhinos were killed in South Africa, mostly in Kruger National Park, a reserve intended for protection. The primary culprit? Rhino horn demand in Vietnam.

rhino side view

Why Now?

In 2008, the perfect storm to annihilate rhinos was unleashed. According to an article in The Atlantic magazine, rumor swept across Vietnam that imbibing crushed rhino horn cured a politician’s cancer, despite there being no scientific evidence to back up the claim. (There is no record of the horn being used to cure cancer in traditional Asian medicine, either.) The country is also experiencing a surge in wealth, with a 150% increase in the number of multimillionaires in the last 5 years. Combined with a surge in cancer cases (up to 150,000 new cases per year) and very little treatment available, people grasp at “straws” like rhino horn to try to restore health. Others insist that the demand for rhino horn has an even more nefarious purpose: ground into a powder, the horn is considered a party drug in Asia, much like cocaine, except without the pharmaceutical effects (imagine grinding your fingernails into a powder). Some mix the powder with alcohol, and one Vietnamese news site calls the luxury potion “the drink of millionaires”; some even snort the powder like snuff. This has increased its cachet in certain circles—though certainly not with those who decry the brutal, militarized killing of rhinos that is occurring to supply it.