This is some deeply depressing news. At the world-famous San Diego Zoo Sunday, one of six northern white rhinos on Earth died of old age, meaning there are now just five remaining as the species nears extinction. The rhino, named Angalifu, was 44 years old when he passed away, reportedly of age-related natural causes — with his death, there's now just one male white rhino left in the entire world.
As detailed by the Washington Post's Abby Ohlheiser, as sad as it is to say, the extinction of the northern white rhino subspecies is likely a foregone conclusion. The San Diego Zoo has hoped, along with species conservationists the world over, that Angalifu might still be able to produce offspring with their other elderly white rhino, a female name Nola. It didn't happen, however — getting animals to breed isn't always a simple or assured thing — and now white rhino Sudan, who's in captivity at a conservation in Kenya, is the last remaining male. The conservation's staff have said that his sperm count is too low to breed successfully.
There was another male in Kenya named Suni, believed to be the last, best hope to produce new offspring, but he died for unknown reasons in October, leaving the fate of the northern white rhino in extreme peril.
The plight of the northern white rhino, and other embattled rhinos like it, is a tragic and heartbreaking one. And it's historically been fueled largely by — you guessed it — human greed. As detailed by CNN, rhino poaching has been a scourge to the efforts of conservationists for years, fed by the sky-high rates that their horns can bring in parts of East Asia. This is particularly true in Vietnam, where according to The Atlantic, 2.2 pounds of rhino horn was going for about $100,000 dollars as recently as 2013, greater than the value of an equivalent amount of gold. The value of the horns dropped precipitously in 2014 thanks to a proactive awareness campaign, but the dreadful impact is still undeniable.
The reason for the demand was purely pseudoscientific — some people believe the horns can cure cancer, and act as a liver-aiding party drug to help ease the effects of alcohol consumption and hangovers. If this all sounds like a pretty awful reason for people to be killing rhinos for their horns, or stealing rhino heads out of museums, well, you're right.
There is one remaining hope for the northern white rhino, cold comfort though it is. The San Diego Zoo has reportedly saved samples of Angalifu's testicular tissue, as well as frozen samples of his sperm, in the hopes that cutting-edge science might someday allow for the northern white rhino to return. But for now, it seems we're rapidly approaching a day when this noble beast will depart. And it's a sad commentary, frankly, on our stewardship of the Earth.
Images: San Diego Zoo Global/Twitter