There has been widespread lamentation today of the passing of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino. He was taken ill last week, and even the efforts of modern medicine could not prevent the inevitable. Before he died it was hoped that he might fertilise the two remaining females, and, like all eligible bachelors, even had a stint on Tinder. Unfortunately, neither resulted in the pitter-patter of little rhino hooflets.
What the obituaries today mask, and this is a very important point, is that the Northern white rhino was already extinct. These magnificent creatures snuffed it a long time ago and few people noticed. Certainly not the media. The media require an event, some cataclysm that will shock, act as a totem on which the public can fixate. It is difficult to make an event out of a sliding-scale of numbers, picked off one by one by poacher’s guns and the deluded lust for keratin-induced hard-ons. Only the deaths of named animals could register, very late in the day.
When the sub-species fell to a population of 3 from at least 500 individuals in the 1970-80’s, the genetic richness of the population was gutted. There were some functional genomes running around on four legs, but they’re not going anywhere. The essence of adaptability and evolution is variation, nothing can happen without that. And without variation, you are in genetic cul-de-sac. That’s if the heritable recessive diseases don’t get you first. There are very good reasons why incest is so taboo, and they aren’t simply effite human mores – other animals have these taboos too.
A similar case was the Florida panther, a subspecies of the cougar, whose population was decimated by hunting in the 1970’s. The remaining 20 animals had massively impaired fertility and the males had ‘kinked tails’. Importing some Texan males from another, closely related population revived the Florida panther’s virility, at the necessary cost of ‘contaminating’ the gene pool. They are still Critically Endangered. This trick could not be played with the Northern white rhinos, they are too distantly related to the Southern population, and in any case, it was already too late for the captive trio.
Sudan’s sperm are to be used to fertilise eggs from his widows through IVF, and a Southern white rhino used as a surrogate. This might produce some offspring, but both females have fertility issues. It won’t make a viable population. We have a handful of rhino gametes (sex cells) and rhino DNA: the public excitement about stem-cell generation of rhino tissues might be less than that surrounding mammoth resurrection, but it’s a whole lot more feasible given that we have complete genomes. But that is where we are at: revenants and zombies. It does not solve the problem and why the species is gone in the first place or bring it back.
We like to think of extinction as a dramatic event, the passing of an indivdual animal with a name and a Twitter account with whom we can empathise. But these celebrity creatures are nothing more than ghosts giving a false sense of presence. The deaths of the final members of iconic species are deeply sad, but we can’t let our social wiring and tendency to identify with individuals dictate how we respond to these situations.
We need to realise that it is the war of attrition that we are waging on global genetic diversity that is the real danger, our juggernaut-like destruction of all the variety and adaptation that has accumulated over the slow millennia. This is insidiously undermining so many species, especially the slow-breeding, spectacular ones that we like most. The Northern white rhino was cut off at the knees by poachers in the 1970’s, it’s just been on life support since then. And when all the effects of the past 100 years of human activity trickle through, there won’t be enough beds in the hospital.