THE LAST MALE NORTHERN WHITE RHINO DIES

NANYUKI, KENYA, Tuesday, March 20th, 2018 – It is with great sadness that Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Dvůr Králové Zoo announce that Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19th, 2018 (yesterday). Sudan was being treated for age-related complications that led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones combined with extensive skin wounds. His condition worsened significantly in the last 24 hours; he was unable to stand up and was suffering a great deal. The veterinary team from the Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta and Kenya Wildlife Service made the decision to euthanize him.

Sudan will be remembered for his unusually memorable life. In the 1970s, he escaped extinction of his kind in the wild when he was moved to Dvůr Králové Zoo. Throughout his existence, he significantly contributed to survival of his species as he sired two females. Additionally, his genetic material was collected yesterday and provides a hope for future attempts at reproduction of northern white rhinos through advanced cellular technologies. During his final years, Sudan came back to Africa and stole the heart of many with his dignity and strength.

“We on Ol Pejeta are all saddened by Sudan’s death. He was a great ambassador for his species and will be remembered for the work he did to raise awareness globally of the plight facing not only rhinos, but also the many thousands of other species facing extinction as a result of unsustainable human activity. One day, his demise will hopefully be seen as a seminal moment for conservationists world wide,” said Richard Vigne, Ol Pejeta’s CEO.

Unfortunately, Sudan’s death leaves just two female northern white rhinos on the planet; his daughter Najin and her daughter Fatu, who remain at Ol Pejeta. The only hope for the preservation of this subspecies now lies in developing in vitro fertilisation (IVF) techniques using eggs from the two remaining females, stored northern white rhino semen from males and surrogate southern white rhino females.

How did we get to this point?
The poaching crisis of the 1970s and 80s, fueled by demand for rhino horn in Traditional Chinese Medicine in Asia and dagger handles in Yemen, wiped out the northern white rhino populations in Uganda, Central African Republic, Sudan and Chad. The last remaining wild population made up of 20-30 rhinos in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo succumbed to fighting in the region during the 1990s and early 2000s. By 2008, the northern white rhino was considered by most experts to be extinct in the wild.

In 2009, the last four fertile northern white rhinos – two males and two females – were moved to Ol Pejeta from Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, with support from Fauna & Flora International and the Kenya Wildlife Service. It was hoped that the climate and rich grasslands of the Conservancy, similar to the native habitat of this subspecies, would provide them with more favourable breeding conditions.

On arrival at Ol Pejeta, the four were placed under 24 hour armed surveillance, and fed a supplemented diet. However, despite the fact that they were seen mating, there were no successful pregnancies.

In early 2014, plans to introduce a male southern white rhino to the two female northern whites got underway in the hopes that if breeding were successful, the hybrid offspring would at least conserve some of the northern white genes. Again, this proved unsuccessful. Tests later revealed that neither of the females was capable of natural reproduction, and that only one was fertile enough to conceive artificially. The death of the other northern white male, Suni, of natural causes in October 2014, further emphasised the need to urgently come up with alternative solutions.

What’s next?
With options running out, scientists are attempting to develop “artificial reproductive techniques” (or ARTs), including IVF to rescue this subspecies. To that end, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and Dvůr Králové Zoo are now partnering with IZW Berlin, Avantea Cremona and the Kenya Wildlife Service to try and conduct the first-ever procedure to safely remove egg cells from remaining females, fertilize these with semen previously collected from northern white males, and insert the resulting embryos into female southern white rhinos acting as surrogates. This has never been done before in rhinos and does not come without risks.

“Sudan was the last northern white rhino that was born in the wild. His death is a cruel symbol of human disregard for nature and it saddened everyone who knew him. But we should not give up. We must take advantage of the unique situation in which cellular technologies are utilized for conservation of critically endangered species. It may sound unbelievable, but thanks to the newly developed techniques even Sudan could still have an offspring,” said Jan Stejskal, Director of International Projects at Dvůr Králové Zoo. “We will be happy for everyone who will help us in our joint effort.”

The estimated cost of IVF – from the development of the method, to trials, implantation and the creation of a viable breeding herd of northern whites – could be as much as US$ 9 million. Yet this is the hope for preserving an entire subspecies. Ol Pejeta and Dvůr Králové Zoo are asking supporters to donate towards this campaign in memory of Sudan, to help us raise the funds needed before it’s too late. Visit http://donate.olpejetaconservancy.org/projects/sudan.

“Supercolony” of Adélie Penguins Discovered in Antarctica

A pair of Adelie penguins in Antarctica.

For the past 40 years, the total number of Adélie Penguins, one of the most common on the Antarctic Peninsula, has been steadily declining—or so biologists have thought. A new study led by researchers from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI), however, is providing new insights on this species of penguin.

In a paper released on March 2nd in the journal Scientific Reports, the scientists announced the discovery of a previously unknown “supercolony” of more than 1,500,000 Adélie Penguins in the Danger Islands, a chain of remote, rocky islands off of the Antarctic Peninsula’s northern tip.

“Until recently, the Danger Islands weren’t known to be an important penguin habitat,” says co-PI Heather Lynch, Associate Professor of Ecology & Evolution at Stony Brook University.  These supercolonies have gone undetected for decades, she notes, partly because of the remoteness of the islands themselves, and partly the treacherous waters that surround them. Even in the austral summer, the nearby ocean is filled with thick sea ice, making it extremely difficult to access.

Yet in 2014, Lynch and colleague Mathew Schwaller from NASA discovered telltale guano stains in existing NASA satellite imagery of the islands, hinting at a mysteriously large number of penguins. To find out for sure, Lynch teamed with Stephanie Jenouvrier, a seabird ecologist at WHOI, Mike Polito at LSU and Tom Hart at Oxford University to arrange an expedition to the islands with the goal of counting the birds firsthand.

When the group arrived in December 2015, they found hundreds of thousands of birds nesting in the rocky soil, and immediately started to tally up their numbers by hand. The team also used a modified commercial quadcopter drone to take images of the entire island from above.

“The drone lets you fly in a grid over the island, taking pictures once per second. You can then stitch them together into a huge collage that shows the entire landmass in 2D and 3D,” says co-PI Hanumant Singh, Professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at Northeastern University, who developed the drone’s imaging and navigation system. Once those massive images are available, he says, his team can use neural network software to analyze them, pixel by pixel, searching for penguin nests autonomously.

The accuracy that the drone enabled was key, says Michael Polito, coauthor from Louisiana State University and a guest investigator at WHOI. The number of penguins in the Danger Islands could provide insight not just on penguin population dynamics, but also on the effects of changing temperature and sea ice on the region’s ecology.

“Not only do the Danger Islands hold the largest population of Adélie penguins on the Antarctic Peninsula, they also appear to have not suffered the population declines found along the western side of Antarctic Peninsula that are associated with recent climate change,” says Polito.

Being able to get an accurate count of the birds in this supercolony offers a valuable benchmark for future change, as well, notes Jenouvrier. “The population of Adélies on the east side of the Antarctic Peninsula is different from what we see on the west side, for example. We want to understand why. Is it linked to the extended sea ice condition over there? Food availability? That’s something we don’t know,” she says.

It will also lend valuable evidence for supporting proposed Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) near the Antarctic Peninsula, adds Mercedes Santos, from the Instituto Antártico Argentino (who is not affiliated with this study but is one of the authors of the MPA proposal) with the Commission for the Conservation of the Antarctic Marine Living Resources, an international panel that decides on the placement of MPAs. “Given that MPA proposals are based in the best available science, this publication helps to highlight the importance of this area for protection,” she says.

Also collaborating on the study: Alex Borowicz, Philip McDowall, Casey Youngflesh, Mathew Schwaller, and Rachael Herman from Stony Brook University; Thomas Sayre-McCord from WHOI and MIT; Stephen Forrest and Melissa Rider from Antarctic Resource, Inc.; Tom Hart from Oxford University; and Gemma Clucas from Southampton University. The team utilized autonomous robotics technology from Northeastern University.

Funding for this research was provided by a grant to the Wood Hole Oceanographic Institution from the Dalio Ocean Initiative. Logistical support was provided by Golden Fleece Expeditions and Quark Expeditions.