Animals dying peacefully of old age is rarely newsworthy, but the death of Nola the northern white rhino at the San Diego Zoo on Sunday made international headlines. Nola was one of only four northern white rhinos left on Earth; her death is a real-time window on extinction.
In fact, that extinction has been happening for a long time. Starting in the early 20th century, poachers in search of rhino horns hunted the species from the thousands to the hundreds to, by the 2000s, the tens. The last sighting of a wild northern white rhino in Africa was in 2006.
Nola died on Sunday morning, when a lingering infection caught up with her. “Nola’s condition worsened and we made the difficult decision to euthanize her,” said the San Diego Zoo in a statement. “We’re absolutely devastated by this loss.” And now there are three—all too old or ill to reproduce, all under armed guard at a Kenyan conservancy.
Extinctions aren’t sudden catastrophes, despite the showiness of famous meteor strikes. They are long, slow declines. You can see them coming from years away.
“We feel really bad it’s happening on our watch,” said Andy Blue, associate curator of mammals for the San Diego Zoo, a few weeks before Nola’s death. The zoo’s world-famous conservation program has rescued other species, like the California condor, from the brink of extinction, and it had been trying to breed northern white rhinos since Nola first arrived in 1989. But the reproductive habits of the northern white rhino proved tough to make it happen in captivity.
As Nola and her male companions, Angalifu and Dinka, aged past their reproductive years, scientists saw one last ray of hope. Before and after their deaths, the researchers studying them froze samples of their cells. If the northern white rhino has a future, it’ll start in a lab.
From Sudan to San Diego
Nola’s history was surprisingly cosmopolitan. She began her life in the savannas of Sudan. Captured in 1975, she then spent two decades at the Dvůr Králové Zoo, now in the Czech Republic. (Whatever you think of captivity, her capture likely saved her from intense poaching in Sudan.) As strife engulfed the native habitat of northern white rhinos and poaching went unchecked, conservationists realized the population of northern white rhinos in zoos—then a non-whopping 15—might be the animals’ only hope for survival.
So in 1989, Dvůr Králové loaned Nola to the San Diego Zoo. The zoo was already famous for successfully breeding a close relative, the southern white rhino. The northern and southern versions are either are subspecies or different species, depending on who you ask, but the southern white rhino is not endangered.