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Swipe right to save the rhino

Andrew Wasike Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya
May 26, 2017

He's 43 years old, six feet tall and pretty wrinkly: The world's last remaining male northern white rhino has joined the dating app Tinder in a last-ditch bid to save his species from extinction.

Last remaining male northern white rhino seen at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya
Image: DW/Andrew Wasike

In the foothills of snow-capped Mount Kenya, the grassy plains of Ol Pejeta Conservancy are home to an old-timer looking for love. It's a peaceful, if remote, spot. But if you can't get out and about, these days you can always hope to meet someone online.

Love knows no boundaries, and a lack of opposable thumbs hasn't discouraged Sudan from getting into the internet dating game. He's 43 years old, six feet tall and close to 2.5 tons in weight. His Tinder profile lists wallowing in mud among his favorite pastimes.

"I'm one of a kind," it reads. "No seriously, I'm the last male white rhino on planet earth. I don't mean to be too forward but the fate of my species literally depends on me. I perform well under pressure."

The last of his kind

Hunting and habitat loss have pushed northern white rhinos to the very edge of extinction. Sudan and two females, Najin and Fatu, make up the world's entire remaining population of their species.

Kenya nördliches Weißes Nashorn
Only three northern white rhinos remain in existence: Najin, Fatu and SudanImage: DW/Andrew Wasike

"He is the most amazing animal in the whole world but really sad because he is the only male left," Zachariah Mutai, one of Sudan's caretakers, tells DW.

The females graze contentedly in a field close to Sudan's. Unfortunately, Fatu is too old to conceive, and Najin can't carry a calf because of a degenerated uterus.

Past his prime

Sudan isn't in peak condition either. He gambols over enthusiastically when one of his caretakers rattles a bucket of carrots, but shows his age. His hind legs are weak, meaning that even if there were a suitable partner for him, he wouldn't be able to mount her.

In-vitro fertilization (IVF) is now the northern white rhino's last hope. Conservationists have tried using Sudan's sperm to impregnate southern white rhinos. But again, his advanced years have been a problem. The quality of his sperm is poor and the experiment wasn't a success.

Kenya nördliches Weißes Nashorn
Sudan may not be lucky in love, but he certainly has won over the affections of his human companionsImage: DW/Andrew Wasike

And that's where the old pachyderm's foray into online dating comes in. The conservancy hopes that if it can raise enough money for IVF research, science will find a way to give Sudan and Najin a child.

Can science find an answer?

"We need between 9 and 10 million dollars to recover this species from the brink of extinction," Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, tells DW. "By swiping right, people when they met Sudan on Tinder were taken to a donations page."

The idea is to genetically modify Sudan's sperm to improve its quality. Then, it would be used to fertilize eggs taken from Najin, to be implanted into a southern white rhino surrogate mother.

If this method worked, a pure-bred northern white rhino calf could be the first step to gradually building up a viable herd.

Global awareness

Finger hovering over Tinder app on smart phon
Tinder - a wellspring of hope for singles, including last male northern white rhino SudanImage: picture-alliance/dpa/F. Kraufmann

The good news is, the Tinder campaign has had a huge response - so much so, the conservancy's website crashed because it couldn't handle the volume of traffic. Sudan's profile is available in 190 countries and over 40 languages. Since launching on April 25 it has raised over $100,000.

Whether this will mean northern white rhinos survive into another generation remains to be seen. But Vigne says that beyond the plight of this majestic species, he hopes the huge number of people across the globe who have swiped Sudan's dating profile will pause to think about the fate of other animals that could be on their way out.

"We want people to know that what is happening to the northern white rhinos is actually happening to many thousands of species across the planet," he says.

Can IVF save the last northern white rhinos?