Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, has died. And it’s very sad.
Any kind of ending is sad, but the irreversible ending of a species takes things to another level of loss, regret, responsibility, and grief.
When we think of extinction, we typically think of the dinosaurs, and then maybe the dodo bird…pea-brained and dumb. We revel in the inexplicable endurance of cockroaches and crocodiles. We celebrate the rediscovery of presumed-extinct species, like the coelacanth.
But when our own species directly contributes to the complete destruction of another species, we are slow to accept responsibility and even slower to adjust our behaviors.
In the case of the dinosaurs, humans obviously didn’t play a role in their extinction. For once, we’re blameless, if only because we didn’t exist yet.
Let’s look at the dodo bird, though. They lived on an island off of Africa with little to no natural predators. What did they have to be afraid of? When Europeans landed on the largely uninhabited island, the birds – curious and friendly to a fault – didn’t run from them. They didn’t put up any natural defenses against them. They didn’t even see them as a threat.
And the birds were killed. All of them.
Now, we have the term “dumb as a dodo,” implying that these birds were so naive and trusting that they practically deserved to die. We quote Darwin and shrug off the natural order of things. We pretend that our deliberate transformation of their natural environment was inconsequential. We assert that survival of the fittest doesn’t allow for the dodo bird. Evolution didn’t do them any favors.
“Blah, blah, blah…it’s not our fault.”
One thing the human race seems to often forget is the finality of things. We act as though resources – land, plants, animals, people – are expendable and infinite. We assume that they can be replenished as quickly as we can consume them. We pretend that our insane rates of consumption are sustainable, normal, or even necessary.
When I was in 2nd grade, we learned about fossil fuels. We watched a video about them in our technology education class. The video must have been produced in the 80s, but it served as a decent enough explainer for a 7-year old to grasp the general concept. That day, I went home to my parents, an usual, I told them what I learned in school.
I told them that cars and trains run on oil and coal. I explained that we need these things to live the way we do, and that they’re the reason why we’re so advanced. I also mentioned that fossil fuels take thousands of years to produce, and that if we keep using them as much as we currently are, we’ll soon run out. I touched on the fact that burning fossil fuels are bad for the environment, and that we need to seriously start looking for different forms of energy.
Again, I learned all of this in 2nd grade. The year would have been 1995-ish, and at the time, the situation seemed pretty dire. I remember being more than a little concerned for the future of our planet and its resources.
That was over 20 years ago, and within the past couple of decades, human consumption hasn’t slowed down. It’s gotten more rampant, despite the fact that we know these resources will soon be exhausted. Alas, we have more structures to support, more money to make, more oil to drill, and more coal to mine.
But even if we could make the argument that we need energy to fuel the progress of society, we can’t exactly say the same for the eradication of an animal species.
Let’s look at the panda.
The panda is a beloved Chinese creature that looks like a giant teddy bear and/or a girl after a hard night of partying. It adorably chews on bamboo all day, and it came dangerously close to extinction. Yes, there are certain evolutionary reasons as to why the panda species is slow to thrive – things like its limited diet, its incredibly short mating season, and their completely dependent cubs – but that isn’t the full story.
Perhaps the most obvious way that human intervention has negatively impacted the panda is by encroaching on their lands. By limiting their living space and their food supply, the panda has suffered from starvation. That, combined with their slowness to reproduce, caused their numbers to drop dramatically. However, thanks to concerted efforts from the Chinese government and conservation groups to revitalize the species and protect their land, the panda’s status has been elevated from “endangered” to “vulnerable to extinction.”
In many other cases, species have been hunted to the point where their numbers decreased faster than they were being replenished. The American bison, for example, was almost killed off by westward-moving pioneers who sought the animal for its flesh, hide, and bones. By way of overzealous hunting and the introduction of domestic disease, the animals died at such astonishing rates that their numbers, at one point, dwindled from 60 million to just 300.
And that brings us back to the northern white rhino. Today, there are only two left, a mother and her daughter, living under tight security in Africa. The last male of their species, Sudan, has died. While there is a very, very small chance of reviving this species through the “magic” of science (potentially through in-vitro fertilization, using a southern white rhino as a surrogate), it’s likely that the species is lost.
When this happens, you have to wonder why. By the time Sudan made international headlines, he was already the last male of his kind, old, and sick. The northern white rhinos, like so many African species, once roamed the land in herds larger than we’ve ever seen today. Through aggressive hunting and capturing, they were killed off as prizes or sold to zoos and safari parks around the world, removing them from their natural habitat, separating them from their herds, and limiting their proliferation.
I learned about poaching when I watched Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls as a kid. Ace Ventura, the original (and only?) pet detective was ahead of his time. He was a vegan before it was trendy to be one, and he cried at the sight of taxidermic animal heads. He showed compassion for animals at a time when no one was really talking about saving them, and even though he hated that bat, he still helped it out.
However you look at it, humans are wasteful and indulgent. We’re often incapable of reigning in our own compulsions, either on an individual level or a societal one. We selfishly pursue our own goals, even at the detriment of the land or another species, and we lack the foresight to account for or care about what could result from our plundering.
It may be too late for Sudan and his kind, but his death can serve as a wake-up call for many of us. While we weren’t the ones capturing or killing rhinos in Africa, we can look to our own consumption and cut back where we can. We can remember that we’re a part of this earth, rather than just living upon it. We can operate with compassion, limiting waste and being realistic about how much of something we truly “need.”
I’m not saying to go vegan or vegetarian, and I’m not implying that you should stop flushing the toilet after you use it. I’m just asking you to be a little more conscious of the impact you have on the world around you. The little things matter, and your efforts make a difference.
With all this, I’m reminded of one of my favorite songs. It’s about a lump of coal who, despite his best intentions at Christmas, realized he wasn’t actually spreading much cheer. So, he figured out a way to turn his situation around, for the betterment of all. It’s called “Joel, the Lump of Coal,” by The Killers and Jimmy Kimmel. It’s a great reminder that all is not lost. Try not to cry.
RIP Sudan. We didn’t deserve you.