Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino, has died at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. He was 45 and, as part of an unsuccessful breeding programme, had been moved to Kenya in 2009, from his previous home. at the Dvůr Králové Zoo, in the Czech Republic, where he had been living ever since he’d been taken from Sudan when he was two.
Northern White Rhinos had once ranged across Kenya, Uganda and the Central African Republic, but the last wild ones were killed by poachers in the Democratic Republic of Congo, in 2004. Poaching caused the extinction of this particular sub-species of Rhino, with poachers driven by the huge financial returns for Rhino horn, due primarily to its use in Chinese Traditional Medicine, and also for dagger handles in Yemen.
Poaching isn’t the only reason why Rhinos, across the world, are declining and some other species are approaching extinction. The other reason is space - Rhinos need a lot of space; and they don’t fit well into land used by people for farming. They are also renowned for their strength and people tend to think they are dangerous - a threat. Even now there are occasional deaths due to Rhinos, but these are rare. And as the number of Rhinos declines, and surviving populations are confined to protected areas and National Parks, there are few opportunities for Rhinos and humans to come into contact, minimising the risk of accidents.
To an extent, the plight of the Northern White Rhino is emblematic of the disappearance of natural areas, and wildlife populations, across the world. Scientists are increasingly of the view that we are now in the midst of the 6th Great Extinction. The previous five Great Extinctions happened thanks to events such as asteroids impacting the Earth, or great geological cataclysms. This one has been created by our own hands - it is being called the Holocene or Anthropocene Extinction, anthropocene - because humanity’s actions are responsible.
While we in Europe tend to think of Rhinos as exotic animals which only live in the Sub-Tropical and Tropical forests of Asia or the Savannahs of Africa, this was not always the case. The ancestor of Rhinos appeared by 50 million years ago, and by 25 million years ago the planet was “practically teeming with Rhinos”. Rhinos and other “Megaherbivores” ruled the planet.
During the last interglacial (the period between ice ages), several species of now extinct Rhino even lived in England, along with other giants like the Straight-tusked Elephant. These Megaherbivores were the ultimate Ecosystem Engineers. They created the conditions from which many species of wildlife in England, Britain and Europe evolved.
Woolly Rhinoceros roamed the icy wastes of Ice Age Britain - with one particularly well-preserved set of remains dating to 42000 years ago. Beetles and midges preserved with the animal indicate that the Woolly Rhino was living on Mammoth Steppe - a habitat which occurred across large parts of Europe, Asia and North America during the last Ice Age. Mammoth Steppe was a kind of grassland, different from but related to Arctic Tundra.
Then, around 50,000 years ago, something started to change. Some believe that early humans hunted the Rhinos and other Megaherbivores to extinction. Others point to natural variations in the climate; or perhaps it was a combination of the two. Whatever the reason, by the time the last Ice Age had ended, there were no Rhinos left in Europe to recolonise Britain once the ice had gone.
No Rhinos, no Straight-tusked Elephants, No Megaherbivores. The loss of Megaherbivores happened across the world - in Europe, parts of Asia, and America. What was left was a very restricted fauna, left in a far smaller area of the Earth - the Elephants and Rhinos of Africa and Asia that we think of now as having been so common 50 or 100 ago, were already just a tiny relic of the previous range and diversity of Megaherbivores.
A period of the Earth’s history spanning hundreds of millions of years, when Megaherbivores dominated Europe and the rest of the world, had ended. And as those Rhinos and Elephants and other giants disappeared, a whole range of open-ground species - plants, butterflies, birds and fruit-producing trees, suddenly lost the Ecosystem Engineers that created the conditions those species depended on. Some trees, for example, had depended on those giants to eat their fruits and spread them around, but had now lost the way their seeds were dispersed.
So how did these species of open ground, of grasslands, survive after the Engineers that created their habitats disappeared? Some scientists are suggesting that it is us, humans, who stepped into the footsteps of these giants, and created similar conditions. How? Through the invention of agriculture.
Humans across the world, independently of each other, invented agriculture around 10,000 years ago. The idea is that by clearing the forests and ploughing the soil, the early farmers inadvertently created the same sort of conditions that had previously been created by the Megaherbivores. The actions of Rhinos grazing, rolling around in the dust, or Elephants knocking down and uprooting trees and Hippos creating wallows were all recreated, to a some extent, by farmers.
This has big implications for the future and what we can do, if anything, to stop the 6th extinction, or at least, ameliorate its effects. Rewilding is a big exciting idea to free up landscapes (across Europe) by removing human impacts - impacts like the effects of agriculture, allowing forest to develop; and reintroducing extinct animals like Beavers, or, more controversially, predators like Lynx or Wolves.
While this approach will restore some natural processes, it will not replace the impact of the Megaherbivores, like Rhinos - whose loss has been partly compensated for by agriculture, over the past 10,000 years. And, of course, agriculture today - with its emphasis on agrochemicals and intensively bred varieties of crops - is not the same as those earlier traditional approaches which could create the conditions where species of open ground could flourish.
What this highlights is that we need to develop a rewilding approach, in tandem with developing a new kind of agriculture, one which is more sympathetic to nature, works with not against nature and one which incorporates the space and creates the conditions needed by those species which previously depended on Megaherbivores.
This might be a fitting memorial to Sudan, to all of the White Rhinos, and to all the other Rhinos that the Earth has lost.
Miles King is an Ecologist, founder of People Need Nature and a regular columnist for Lush Times. These are his own views. Follow him on Twitter @Milesking10