On Sunday, Nola the 41-year-old female northern white rhinoceros died, leaving only three members of her subspecies still alive on Earth.
Some species on this planet slip into extinction quietly, with people never the wiser to their existence or demise. Yet the northern white rhinos are too large and charismatic to escape the public’s notice. Their extinction is a slow, sad countdown as the species dwindles to five, then four and now three.
Northern white rhinos once roamed grasslands and savanna woodlands in Uganda, South Sudan, the Central African Republic and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Poaching knocked their population down from 2,000 animals in 1960 to only 15 by 1984. Since 2011, the subspecies has been considered extinct in the wild.
Nola had lived at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park since 1989, along with a male, Angalifu, that died in December 2014. On November 13, she underwent surgery for a hip abcess, but her recovery wasn’t going well, reports BBC News.
On Sunday a statement from the Safari Park explained: "In the past 24 hours Nola’s condition has worsened significantly," according to Tony Perry of The Los Angeles Times. "Early this morning, the team made the difficult decision to euthanize her."
The three remaining northern white rhinos, all elderly, live at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservatory, where they are guarded around the clock by armed security. The two females are no longer capable of natural reproduction and the last male has a low sperm count, writes John R. Platt for Scientific American.
That bleak outlook doesn’t mean that people still aren’t looking for ways to save the subspecies.
When Nabiré, a female that lived at a Czech zoo, died this past summer, experts removed her remaining healthy ovary with the intention of saving the eggs, reports Maya Wei-Haas for National Geographic. Cloning that rhino’s genetic material or breeding the remaining northern white rhinos with southern white rhinos—the subspecies' counterpart—are the methods left of reviving their dwindling numbers.
But as of now, troubles with rhino reproduction in captivity and the ineffectiveness of current cloning techniques mean that hope is slim and vanishing with these majestic creatures.