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The tragic story of the northern white rhino came one heartbeat closer to its end on Sunday, as Nola, a 41-year-old female, was put down due to deteriorating health. Nola had lived at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park since 1989 and underwent surgery earlier this month to drain a hip abscess. Following the surgery, Nola’s health continued to fade and, after a week with no improvement, her handlers made the decision to euthanize her over the weekend.

Nola was one of four northern white rhinos remaining on the planet. Today, there are only three.

Nola at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. (Photo via San Diego Zoo's Facebook)

Nola at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. (Photo via San Diego Zoo’s Facebook)

“We’re absolutely devastated by this loss,” the San Diego Zoo Safari Park wrote on its Facebook page, “but resolved to fight even harder to #EndExtinction. We ask you to join us in that fight. Please share your memories of Nola and your condolences with the #Nola4Ever hashtag, and let this be a warning of what is happening to wildlife everywhere. #RIP sweet girl. You will be deeply, dearly missed.”

The Northern White Rhino: Countdown to Extinction

The news of Nola’s death continues Planet Experts’ somber countdown to the northern white rhino’s extinction, which began in October 2014 with the death of Suni at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Suni, a 34-year-old male, was the first northern white rhino to be born in captivity. None of the species remains in the wild, and his death reduced the total population to six. Two months later, Angalifu, a 44-year-old male, died at the San Diego Safari Park. This left just one northern white rhino male on the planet, Sudan, who is now kept under 24-hour armed guard at Ol Pejeta. In July, 31-year-old female Nabiré died at the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. Now, with the death of Nola, the planet’s entire population of northern white rhinos can now be found in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

How Did This Happen?

Rather quickly. The rhino has existed on Earth for some 50 million years. In 1960, the population of the northern white rhino subspecies was somewhere above 2,000. By 1984, the number was down to just 15.

The reasons are simple: Human development and human ignorance. Industrialization across the continent has reduced the traditional territories of many African species, and what rhinos weren’t hunted for sport were poached for their horns. For centuries, rhino horn was purported to contain fantastical medicinal powers when it is in fact loaded with nothing more complicated than keratin, the same material that composes fingernails and hair.

As National Geographic points out, the southern white rhino avoided the fate of its northern cousin thanks to the South African government, which made overt efforts to save the species from the brink of extinction.

Nabiré before her death, at the Dvůr Králové Zoo (Source: Creative Commons).

Nabiré before her death, at the Dvůr Králové Zoo (Source: Creative Commons).

Hope for the Future?

At 42, Sudan is now past the breeding age. The last two females are also either too old or sickly to breed. Eggs harvested from Nabiré could potentially be implanted in other rhino subspecies and fertilized by southern white rhino males, but that would still be the end of the true northern white rhino.

Planet Experts will continue this somber countdown in hopes that this visible sign of the planet’s shrinking biodiversity will point the way towards a more enlightened future.

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