The Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya announced Saturday the death of a northern white rhino called Suni. He was one of four northern whites living in the conservancy and was the first of his kind to be born in captivity.
Suni was born at the Czech zoo Dvur Kralove zoo 34 years ago. Together with two females and another male, he was reintroduced to the wild in 2009 in Kenya in hopes of helping the northern white rhinos proliferate naturally.
With Suni gone, the number of northern white rhinos was reduced to six. And as "the last male capable of breeding" according to the Dvur Kralove zoo, his death brings his species closer to extinction.
More than a million years ago, Uganda, South Sudan, and the Democratic Republic of Congo saw northern white rhinos roaming in the wild. By 1960, there were around 2,000 northern white rhinos left. This number quickly dwindled down to 15 no thanks to extensive poaching in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Northern white rhinos were hunted for their horns, a highly prized ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine.
Suni was found dead in his boma but is believed to not be a victim of poaching. Official cause of death is yet to be announced but vets from the Kenya Wildlife Service will be conducting an autopsy as soon as possible. Suni's father Saut died in 2006 due to natural causes. He was also the same age as Suni.
While all rhino species are endangered, the southern white rhino is faring better than its northern counterparts, with an estimated 17,000 still roaming in the wild. All of the living northern white rhinos are in captivity.
"The number of rhinos killed by poachers has increased incredibly in the past few years. According to some scenarios, there will be no rhinos left in the wild in Africa in 10 years or so," said Jana Mysliveckova, Dvur Kralove zoo spokesperson.
If all of the rhinos were to disappear, effects could be catastrophic to savannas in Africa and potentially the rest of the world. This is because as megaherbivores, rhinos are considered as a keystone species, playing an important role in the ecosystem. Take them out of the picture and an entire community can be thrown out of whack.
Rhinos help maintain grasslands when they graze, which in turn allows grasslands to maintain other forms of life to grow. Aside from providing food for numerous species, grasslands like savannas are also natural carbon sinks, storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere to reduce the effects of emissions.