The last two living northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu, are protected from poachers 24 hours a day by armed guards. Their critically endangered subspecies has been in peril for decades.
In fervent hope of a better future, conservationist James Mwenda has taken care of the female pair at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Nanyuki, Kenya, since 2013.
A male rhino, named Sudan, once made the duo a trio, but he passed away in 2018, aged 45, eliminating the possibility for natural propagation.
“[Sudan] represented much more than just one rhino,” Mwenda told My Modern Met. “What he stood for is huge.”
Mwenda wakes up early at the conservancy to release “his girls” from their secured sleeping pens into a larger area, to roam.
“We have to check their health every morning, first thing at 6 a.m.,” said Mwenda. “Next, we have to clean their pens, clean their watering troughs, make sure the environment is clean.”
Volunteers and visitors come and go with frequency, so Mwenda and his colleagues also prepare talks to educate the public on Najin and Fatu, their needs, and their very distinct personalities.
They also discuss the future. Without Sudan, the only way that mother Najin, 31, and daughter Fatu, 19, can reproduce is through in vitro fertilization (IVF).
“That is the hope we have,” Mwenda told My Modern Met. “[T]hat is what we want to hear—that Sudan and the northern white rhinos are being resurrected.”
“We rely on it so much, and we are waiting, fingers crossed.”
Professor Thomas Hildebrandt of the Liebniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research told the BBC that September marked a “very important phase” in a five-year program. Using sperm from male white rhinos collected before their deaths, and delicately extracted eggs from Najin and Fatu, Hildebrandt’s team successfully harvested two embryos at their lab in Italy.
More prolific southern white rhinos could act as surrogates, as neither Najin nor Fatu can carry a pregnancy.
Mwenda is excited for the possibility of northern white rhino calves, and hopes, concurrently, that sharing Najin, Fatu, and Sudan’s stories will serve as a defense against the devastating near-elimination of other subspecies in the future.
There were 2,000 northern white rhinos in the 1950s. Poaching for their horns, which can fetch over $6,000 per kilogram in the Middle East, has ravaged numbers.
For Mwenda and his colleagues, extinction is not an abstract concept.
“When people talk about extinction, it looks like a thing that is so far away,” Mwenda told My Modern Met.
“But, we’re here witnessing it every day; feeling it through these animals, so it’s emotionally draining. But, at the end of the day, we are inspired.”
Mwenda’s relationship with wild animals began in childhood when his community near Mount Kenya became embroiled in conflict with local elephants looting and eating their food. Mwenda witnessed a lot of anger toward the elephants but grew up driven by empathy and curiosity about these large, persecuted creatures.
He couldn’t afford university, so he looked for a job that would allow him to work with the creatures he loved. He found one at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Wanting to help facilitate trips for nature-loving tourists, Mwenda is also setting up his own travel company, Jemu Mwenda Expeditions, and posts regular updates on his Instagram page.
The passionate conservationist feels instinctively that Najin and Fatu realize they are the last of their kind.
“I can tell that they feel they are the last of their kind. They feel it,” he told My Modern Met. “So, through their personalities, they give us ‘lessons’ that we can use for future generations.”
Mwenda still mourns Sudan’s passing but upholds his solemn promise to be Sudan’s voice in the fight for greater awareness.
“Extinction isn’t only about animals, but it has a lot to do with humans, too,” Mwenda says in the YouTube video of his beautiful Rhino girls.
Watch the Royal Rhino Girls in the video below:
(Courtesy of James Mwenda)
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