The Northern White Rhino Project

The Northern White Rhinoceros is critically endangered. There are probably only seven Northern White Rhinos left in the world. The last four fertile animals were brought Back to Africa to commence the last chance breeding program at Ol Pejeta in Kenya.


Project Detail

The Northern White Rhinoceros (Cermatotherium simum cottoni), formerly found in several countries in East and Central Africa south of the Sahara, is critically endangered. Their wild population appears to have been exterminated with the last animals recently disappearing from the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. There are probably only seven Northern White Rhinos left in the world as of 2009.

The Northern White Rhino formerly ranged over parts of north-western Uganda, southern Chad, south-western Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Poachers reduced their population from 500 to 15 through the 1970’s and 1980’s. Through in situ conservation initiatives in Garamba National Park the population recovered to more than 32 animals by 2003. However uncontrolled poaching as a result of the civil unrest in the DRC saw the wild population crash to only four of five animals in 2007, none of which have been seen in the last two years.

Garamba National Park
The last surviving population of wild Northern White Rhinos were all located in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Recent civil wars and disruptions have been the cause for much concern about the status of this last surviving population.

In January 2005, the Government of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) approved a two-part plan for the translocation of five Northern White Rhino from Garamba to a place of safety at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Sadly a last minute political glitch put an end to this after all the infrastructure was in place.

In August 2005, ground and aerial surveys conducted under the direction of African Parks Foundation (who presently manage Garamba) and the African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) only found four animals. A solitary adult male and a group of one adult male and two adult females. They have never been seen again and it is presumed they have been exterminated. Efforts to locate further animals continue.

White Rhinos in Zoos and Cooperation with Back to Africa.
Most White Rhinos in zoos are Southern White Rhinos. San Diego holds two Northern Whites but sadly these are not capable of breeding. Another two infertile animals are in Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic.

San Diego, USA
The San Diego Wild Animal Park in the USA has two Northern White Rhinos, a female “Nola” and a male “Angalifu”, who were wild-caught. They are now sadly too old to breed. A massive effort was made between the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Czech Republic to get as much of Angalifu's semen to the female rhinos in captivity. However, this did not result in success.

Dvur Králove, Czech Republic
Dvur Králove, owns six Northern White Rhinos:
A male, “Sudan”, aged 32 years, in good health and in breeding condition.
A male, “Suni”, aged 18 years, in good health.
A female, “Najin”, aged 18 years, in good health. Najin is Sudan’s daughter.
A female “Fatu”, 8 years old and in good health.
A female, “Nabire”, aged 25 years. She has never bred as she has cystic ovaries and needs specialist veterinary attention.
An elderly female with locomotor problems not suitable for relocation.

With the failure of numerous breeding attempts, Zoo Dvur Králove instructed Back to Africa to find a suitable free-ranging venue in Africa to enhance the breeding potential of these rhinos. Dr Hamish Currie flew to Kenya in December 2007 and again in January 2009 where he visited the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. He met with world renowned rhino conservator Mr Ian Craig to discuss the possibility of Ol Pejeta becoming the custodians of Dvur Kralove’s Northern White Rhino. This is a perfect venue with Rolls Royce security, the habitat is ideal and good infrastructure exists as a result of the previous initiative to move Northern Whites there from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

On the 20th December 2009 the four last fertile Northern White Rhinos in the world (Sudan, Suni, Najin and Fatu) touched down at Jomo Kenyata Airport, Nairobi from Prague in a Martinair 747 cargo aircraft. Accompanying them on their flight was Back to Africa director and veterinarian Dr Peter Morkel. With him was Back to Africa’s rhino whisperer Berry White, Dvur Kralove veterinarian Jiri Valhalla and keeper Jan Zdarek as well as Mark Carwadine. Amy Vitalli was also on board doing a documentary for National Geographic.

On the tarmac to meet them was Back to Africa director Hamish Currie and Ol Pejeta’s Martin Mulama who had arranged clearance and ground operations.

The tarmac at Prague was covered in snow on departure and conditions were balmy on arrival in Nairobi. Then began the four hour road journey to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, under the slopes of Mount Kenya.

The crates were lifted off the trucks and positioned at the entrance to the well constructed bomas. Offloading was uneventful and the rhinos took their first steps on African soil. The next morning the rhinos were seen eating the grass that was growing in their bomas, a good sign for their adaptation considering they had never grazed in the past! Other than the fact that Suni was a little stiff they seemed to have survived their transport extremely well. Later that afternoon Sudan was lying on his side in a state of bliss receiving a body massage from Pete Morkel!

The rhinos are receiving twenty four hour protection from Ol Pejeta’s crack ranger force armed with automatic weapons. This project has been controversial with a variety of sources not supporting it. Some critics believed the rhinos would not survive the journey, believing Sudan was too old to endure it.

No expense was spared to ensure the rhinos had a comfortable journey. The crates were spacious and a special diversion was made from Prague direct to Nairobi at an extra cost of almost US$ 50 000. Others believed the disparity in temperature between the Czech Republic and Kenya would be too much. Others believed security would not be sufficient. Two visits by Hamish Currie to Ol Pejeta was convincing that this sanctuary has the best security in Africa.

Some believed that artificial reproduction techniques would be the best chance to get the two females pregnant. Our regular visits to rhino sanctuaries in Africa have the imprinted vision of almost every rhino cow running with a calf. Whilst we believe there is a place for artificial insemination and other artificial reproduction techniques, we still believe that the natural approach has the best chance.

The existing Southern White Rhino at Ol Pejeta will be used to disturb the existing social structure. Mother Najin will be separated from daughter Fatu and mixed with southern cows. A young southern bull will be on the perimeter to stimulate Sudan and Suni. We strongly believe this social rearrangement in the face of a more extensive environment with more natural nutrition will be enough to stimulate the needed reproductive activity.

We received a report on the 28th of November that two Russian helicopter pilots had seen Northern White Rhinos in southern Sudan. This is very exciting news that reinforces our certainty that moving these precious animals to Africa was the correct decision. The fact that these zoo animals are now in Africa makes the possibility of combining these remnant populations that much easier. The Northern White Rhino could still be saved.

This was a real team effort that would not have been possible without the participation of our partners Fauna and Flora International, Dvur Kralove Zoo and all those at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Ol Pejeta
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is a 90,000 acre private wildlife conservancy situated on the equator, in Kenya’s Laikipia District, between the foot hills of the Aberdares and the magnificent snow-capped Mount Kenya. Ol Pejeta Conservancy aims to secure habitat for the purposes of wildlife conservation. In particular, Ol Pejeta works to conserve the highly endangered Black Rhino and is now the largest Black Rhino sanctuary in East Africa. As an integral part of the Laikipia/Samburu ecosystem, Ol Pejeta is home to the “Big Five” and carries one of the highest wildlife densities in Kenya.

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy is home to 79 Black Rhinos (Diceros bicornis michaeli) and a smaller population of Southern White Rhinos (Cermatotherium simum), so staff are well qualified to care for these precious animals. Ol Pejeta’s rhinos are guarded with an elaborate security system to ensure their safety. The Northern Whites will be fitted with horn transmitters and will be kept under 24 hour surveillance.


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