Wildlife

How Likely Is Northern White Rhino Extinction?

April 12, 2018
northern white rhino extinction

Science may be able to reverse extinction as time goes by, but questions arise about whether or not it should.

We live on an amazing planet with diverse and unique animal life. It’s estimated 8.7 million different species live in this world, and we discover, on average, thousands of new species each year. Learning about the different plants and animals that inhabit this planet helps us understand our world and ourselves.

Despite the fact millions of different species live on this planet, we lose dozens of creatures to extinction every day. Even though extinction is a natural phenomenon, almost 99 percent of extinctions that occur are caused by humans. As our population continues to grow, we encroach upon new habitats to develop places to live and to grow food, which pushes animals into new territories or kills them. We’ve also introduced new species that compete for food and space, and we’ve contributed to pollution and global warming.

For some species, including rhinos, their numbers have dwindled because of illegal hunting and poaching for their ivory. That has been the case for the Northern White Rhino, which faces the distinct possibility of extinction — especially now since there are only two of this subspecies of rhino left. Northern White Rhino extinction seems inevitable.

Saving the Northern White Rhino

The world’s last three surviving Northern White Rhinos lived at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The conservation began as a cattle farm and was then transformed to help the struggling black rhino population and other creatures affected by the black market, including chimpanzees. Its goal is to not only protect and save animals but to educate and inform the communities around its borders to ensure future generations have the knowledge to protect themselves and the environment so all species can live a long, healthy life.

With the death of the last male Northern White Rhino and only two surviving females, who are related, the fate of this species is called into question. There are questions about whether or not to use in vitro fertilization (IVF) or cloning to bring this species back to the world, but the answers aren’t without complications.

For one, the use of IVF in rhinos hasn’t been perfected. Because of the uniqueness of each subspecies’ womb, it’s difficult to recreate the environment to achieve a successful birth. While there have been some successful live births that resulted from IVF, the number is low enough and the cost high enough that it’s difficult to determine if the risk is worth it.

There have been discussions about using the Southern White Rhino as a surrogate to bring back the Northern White Rhino, but — again — the science hasn’t progressed far enough to know if this is a viable option or if it will be successful. More tests and studies have to be conducted, and it’s possible there’s not enough time before the extinction of the Northern White Rhino.

The problem with cloning this species is twofold. Again, the advancement in science might not be there to make this option a reality. While several different types of species have already been cloned, the process is not perfect and needs development. In addition, there is the ethical question about whether or not science should use cloning to bring species back.

Cloning Extinct Species: A Lot of Unknowns

Science fiction has tackled the question of whether or not science should clone animals to bring them back from extinction, and the outcome is generally destructive. Despite the multitude of “what ifs” that exist with cloning, there are some answers to what could happen if science clones a species because they’ve cloned many species. However, most of these species have been used for incredibly limited purposes, including for consumption and for lab use.

The unknown is what happens when science uses cloning to save a species. How will that animal act in its natural habitat? Will there even be a natural habit for it to live in? What impact will it have on the ecosystem and the environment? Will the species breed naturally after the founding population or will it continue to depend on cloning for survival?

The amount of unanswered questions this process has for saving extinct species makes a lot of people nervous and uncertain about whether cloning is the answer. There are also financial barriers to cloning, and without funding, it might not be possible to accomplish the task of bringing Northern White Rhinos back from extinction.

Better to Focus on Future Conservation?

There are no easy answers when it comes to determining the best way to deal with the Northern White Rhino extinction or any animal extinction, for that matter. The one thing that most people can agree upon is that humans and science should do something about the issue, but it is divided on exactly what that should be. Some believe since only two Northern White Rhinos currently exist and they can’t breed and that science needs to advance for IVF to be successful, it might be better to cut our losses and focus on conservation.

While letting a species die out is tough to deal with, it’s also a good lesson to learn from. It allows us to reflect on the things that could have been done differently in the future so the mistakes aren’t repeated with other animals in need. With funding and budgets tight, some argue it might be a better investment to move on and protect another species from suffering the same fate.

Only time will let the world know what the best course of action is for saving animals from extinction or bringing them back. There’s a lot to learn in any process that might be implemented to solve the extinction problem and, unfortunately, for some species, it may be too late.

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