Northern white rhinos Najin and Fatu at Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Northern white rhinos Najin and Fatu © Ol Pejeta Conservancy

The last two living northern white rhinos in the world, females named Najin and Fatu, live under armed guard at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. They are the final survivors of a subspecies driven to the brink of extinction due primarily to what WWF refers to as rampant poaching for rhino horn.

However, scientists and conservationists have not stopped efforts to revive northern white rhinos.

On the contrary, on April 9, 2024, New Scientist published an article about scientists at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance who are using frozen skin cells from 12 northern white rhinos to potentially save the subspecies from extinction.

There is enough genetic material to generate sperm and egg cells from these skin cells, which could then be turned into embryos. The embryos could be carried by closely related southern white rhino females. A simulated model suggests that this could result in a healthy, genetically diverse population of northern white rhinos within ten generations.

Can conservationists revive the northern white rhino when only two living individuals remain?

2000-4000 year-old rock painting of a rhino, Spikzkoppe, Namibia.

2000-4000 year-old rock painting of a rhino, Spikzkoppe, Namibia.

Rhinoceros from Prehistoric to Present

Rhinos are some of the most unique herbivores on the planet, with their story dating back around 50 million years. Their predecessors first appeared shortly after the dinosaurs and long before humans. Prehistoric rhinos also walked the Earth long before elephants, meaning they were once the largest land mammals on the planet.

Rhinos belong to a group of animals called perissodactyls, or odd-toed ungulates, which also include horses, zebras and tapirs. Rhinos as we know them today first appeared in the fossil record about 40 million years ago. Their ancestors emerged in what is now known as India. 

Today, rhinos are the world’s second-largest land mammal, after elephants, and can weigh more than two tons. They are also among the oldest mammals on Earth.

indigenous San people rhino cave painting cave art prehistoric ancient Drakensberg South Africa

Rock painting by the Indigenous San people depicting rhinos, Drakensberg mountains, South Africa.

Yet this mighty, enduring beast is threatened with extinction as poaching has decimated its numbers in the past century. 

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports that for World Rhino Day on September 22, 2023, African authorities estimated that there were 23,290 rhinos across the continent at the end of 2022, 5.2% more than in 2021. Poaching continues though, with at least 561 rhinos illegally killed across the continent during 2022.

The IUCN Species Survival Commission’s African Rhino Specialist Group (AfRSG) reported that there are now an estimated 16,803 white rhinos—marking the first increase for the species in over a decade. All but two—Najin and Fatu—are southern white rhinos.

According to WWF, the overwhelming majority (98.8%) of the southern white rhinos occur in just four countries: South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Kenya. southern white rhinos were thought to be extinct in the late 19th century, but in 1895 a small population of fewer than 100 individuals was discovered in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa.

The southern white rhino population has rebounded from as few as 50 individuals in the early 20th century and is now relatively strong, thanks to conservation efforts. After more than a century of protection and management, they are now classified as Near Threatened. Most live in protected areas and private game reserves. This is proof that conservation can revive species. 

Could science save the northern white rhino now?

Close-up of horn and head of White rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum). Lake Nakuru NP, Kenya, East Africa

Close-up of horn and head of white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum). Lake Nakuru National Park, Kenya © Anup Shah, WWF

The Plight of the Northern White Rhino

As recently as the 1960s, northern white rhinoceroses were even more abundant than their southern white counterparts, with over 2,000 rhinos ranging in the wild.

The northern white rhino once roamed over parts of northwestern Uganda, southern South Sudan, the eastern part of the Central African Republic, and the northeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Their range possibly extended as far west as Lake Chad into Chad and Cameroon. 

However, rampant poaching led to a drastic decline in their numbers. Within a decade, the number of northern white rhinos dropped to just 700, and by 1984, only 15 individuals had remained in the Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Intervention by conservationists brought the numbers up to around 30, but an outbreak of civil war once again led to a significant decline in their numbers.

Today, the subspecies is functionally extinct. The story of the northern white rhino is a reminder of the devastating impact of human activities on wildlife and the urgent need for innovative conservation efforts.

This memorial at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy honors the lives of all the Ol Pejeta rhinos that have been killed in the poaching epidemic. The marker stones stand underneath a tree; a stark reminder of the devastation of the illegal wildlife trade, but also an inspiration for those who visit to continue supporting rhino conservation. © Ray in Manila, flickr

This memorial at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy honors the lives of all the Ol Pejeta rhinos that have been killed in the poaching epidemic. The marker stones stand underneath a tree; a stark reminder of the devastation of the illegal wildlife trade, but also an inspiration for those who visit to continue supporting rhino conservation. © Ray in Manila, flickr

Conservation Science and Species Survival

Groundbreaking efforts are being made to save the northern white rhino from extinction, pushing the boundaries of what we thought was possible in wildlife conservation. The story of the northern white rhino is now intertwined with cutting-edge science and a global commitment to biodiversity.

There are several innovative conservation efforts underway to save the northern white rhino from extinction.

Scientists are working on techniques to create new northern white rhino embryos. This involves harvesting viable eggs from the remaining females, Najin and Fatu, and fertilizing them with sperm previously collected from male northern white rhinos.

Since December 2019, scientists have successfully extracted immature egg cells from northern white rhinos Najin and Fatu in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy. This process led to 29 viable embryos, all of which are stored in liquid nitrogen at a laboratory in Italy.

Neither Najin nor Fatu can carry a pregnancy, so the fertilized embryos will be implanted into a surrogate southern white rhino.

This process, in addition to the scientific advances in San Diego, could mark not just the fight to save the northern white rhino, but an advancement for conservation of other species as well. 

WWF highlights that the protection of rhinos helps protect other species, too. Rhinos contribute to economic growth and sustainable development through the tourism industry, which creates job opportunities and provides tangible benefits to local communities living alongside rhinos.

Natural Habitat Adventures Expedition Leader Paul Kirui with Sudan, the world's last male northern white rhino.

Nat Hab Expedition Leader Paul Kirui (right) with Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino © Paul Kirui

The Role of African Safaris in Conservation

Safaris, particularly those focused on rhinos, play a significant role in conservation efforts. Here’s how they contribute:

  • Direct Financial Support: A portion of proceeds may go directly to conservation efforts. This financial support aids in various initiatives, including anti-poaching measures, habitat conservation, and community outreach programs.
  • Anti-Poaching Initiatives: Revenue generated from safaris often funds anti-poaching efforts. These initiatives are crucial in protecting rhinos from illegal hunting.
  • Wildlife Population Management: Some safaris contribute to population management measures, such as moving selected rhinos from established populations to new locations to keep populations productive and increase the species’ range.
  • Conservation Education and Awareness: Safaris offer an incredible opportunity for tourists to learn about rhinos, the threats they face, and the conservation efforts in place to protect them. This education and awareness can lead to increased support for conservation efforts.
  • Encouraging Local Community Engagement: Safaris often engage local communities in conservation efforts. This not only helps protect rhinos but also provides economic incentives for the communities, such as jobs and revenue from tourism. Local communities value their land and wildlife differently as a result of the opportunities they generate.

Focusing on the African safari, these trips not only offer an unforgettable experience of witnessing the continent’s stunning wildlife and landscapes, but they also contribute to the preservation of precious wildlife and ecosystems. By choosing to engage in these adventures, tourists directly contribute to the protection of ecosystems and the survival of endangered species.

Nat Hab guests often meet the brave wildlife rangers who protect rhinos and other endangered species. Check out our Ultimate East Africa itinerary to learn more! © Richard de Gouveia

Nat Hab guests often meet the brave wildlife rangers who protect rhinos and other endangered species. Check out our Ultimate East Africa itinerary to learn more! © Richard de Gouveia

Experiencing Kenya’s Conservation Safaris

Across the region, the conservancy model and ecotourism have been boons to the region’s wildlife, creating buffer zones and protecting migration corridors while providing economic benefits to local landowners through responsible safari tourism.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy

Ol Pejeta Conservancy, located on the Laikipia Plateau, was a working cattle ranch established in the 1940s. Ol Pejeta set aside land for rhino conservation in 1988 and has become a highly regarded trailblazer for conservation innovation. Today it is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa. The conservancy is also home to the endangered Grevy’s zebra and has some of Kenya’s highest predator densities, yet it still manages a very successful livestock program.

Ol Pejeta seeks to preserve the exceptional biodiversity within its 90,000 acres while supporting the people living in local communities on its bordersto ensure that wildlife conservation translates to better education, healthcare and infrastructure for the next generation.

In 2014, Ol Pejeta achieved IUCN Green List status, one of only two conservancies in Africa to be so recognized. The Green List aims to define excellence in managing valuable natural areas.

Nat Hab guests encounter a rhino on safari in Kenya

Nat Hab guests encounter a rhino on safari in Kenya © Andrew Morgan

Ol Derekesi Conservancy

Ol Derekesi Conservancy is an important corridor between the Loita/Ngurman hills and the Maasai Mara National Reserve for over 3,000 elephants and thousands of other transient plains herbivores, such as wildebeest, zebra, eland and gazelles. The land also supports a permanent population of around 110 Maasai giraffes. In the southeast Mara, the Ol Derekesi Conservancy is managed by two trusts; its area spans approximately 30 square miles.

With the establishment of the Conservancy, local Maasai elders agreed to keep smaller herds and protect the land from overgrazing. This allows local wildlife to flourish in unfenced lands and gives the land a chance to regenerate and rewild, which is especially important in light of increasingly devastating droughts in the Maasai Mara. In exchange for less intense use of the lands by the Maasai, the local community receives financial benefits from ecotourism, plus a number of community social amenities and educational opportunities. By agreeing to lease their land, Maasai landowners keep important land corridors open for the Great Migration across the Mara-Serengeti ecosystem. 

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy

Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, located in north-central Kenya in the shadow of snowcapped Mt. Kenya, was a cattle ranch known as Lewa Downs. Today, it may be the most famous private wildlife reserve in Africa, gaining a worldwide reputation for its pioneering efforts in restoring endangered species. In the 1980s, the process began to transform the ranchland into a heavily guarded black rhinoceros sanctuary.

In the 1960s, Kenya boasted an estimated population of 20,000 black rhinos, but within two decades, poaching reduced that number to fewer than 300. The Lewa Conservancy has played an instrumental role in returning rhinos from the brink of extinction, and Kenya’s rhino population today numbers over a thousand, though the species remains critically endangered.

 In 2014, Lewa and the neighboring Borana Conservancy made a bold move to remove the fence separating the two reserves to create one conservation landscape for the benefit of the rhino. With the fence now gone, this landscape now tops 93,000 acres and is one of the biggest private rhino reserves in Kenya. Today, 244 black and white rhinos roam the joint-protected area.

Lewa is also a leader in anti-poaching efforts on behalf of Kenya’s imperiled elephants, participating in regional action to protect more than 6,500 migratory elephants as they move seasonally across the area. The conservancy is also home to a variety of other species ranging from wild dogs, giraffes, antelopes, buffalo, hippos and lions.

Nat Hab’s Kenya Rhino Conservation Safari offers exclusive, behind-the-scenes talks with conservationists on the front lines in all three of these leading private conservancies. Guests learn about struggles and successes with rhino restoration and relish encounters with an array of Kenyan animals on game drives and guided walks from secluded private camps. This hands-on experience not only educates about the importance of conservation but also directly contributes to local communities and the survival of the rhinos.

Nat Hab's Rhino Camp at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, KenyaOl

Nat Hab’s Rhino Camp at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya © Andrew Morgan

Inspired to Support Rhinoceros Conservation?

The northern white rhino’s story is not just about survival but also about the incredible scientific and conservation efforts being made to secure their future. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) reports a positive trend in the overall white rhino population, with an estimated 16,803 white rhinos now present—the first increase for the species in over a decade.

The plight of the northern white rhino is a call to action for all of us. Here’s how you can make a difference:

  • Embark on a Conservation Safari: Consider going on a conservation safari like the Kenya Rhino Conservation Safari. It’s more than just an adventure; it’s a chance to contribute directly to the survival of the northern white rhino. Every booking supports vital conservation efforts.
  • Donate to Conservation Efforts: If you can’t make the trip, consider donating to rhino conservation organizations. Your contributions can help fund critical initiatives such as anti-poaching patrols, habitat restoration, and scientific research aimed at reviving the northern white rhino population.
  • Spread Conservation Awareness: Use your voice to make a difference. Talk about the northern white rhino’s plight with your friends, family and social media networks. The more people know about this issue, the more support we can garner for these magnificent creatures. If you are a teacher, parent, grandparent, or a kid at heart—you might use our Rhino quiz!
Southern white rhinoceros (Ceratotherium simum simum)

Southern white rhinoceros © Martin Harvey, WWF

Remember, every action counts. Whether it’s embarking on a safari, making a donation or simply spreading the word, you can play a part in saving the northern white rhino. Let’s join hands to ensure that future generations also get to witness the majesty of these incredible creatures.

Rhino conservation efforts are of paramount importance as they play a crucial role in preserving one of the world’s most iconic species. Conservation efforts, including anti-poaching initiatives, habitat restoration, community engagement and innovative scientific methods such as in-vitro fertilization are vital to ensure the survival of these majestic creatures.

A rhino safari adventure like the Kenya Rhino Conservation Safari provides a unique opportunity to contribute directly to these conservation efforts. Participating in these safaris, travelers not only get to experience the thrill of witnessing these magnificent creatures but also contribute financially to their survival by supporting various conservation initiatives and local communities devoted to them.

Nat Hab guests with a rhino at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya by Andrew Morgan

Nat Hab guests with a rhino at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya © Andrew Morgan