Hi, my name is Sam Anderson, and I am a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine. And this week I wrote a cover story about my time with the last two northern white rhinos on planet Earth.
So this story really started with sadness. I was sitting around feeling doomed and gloomy about the state of the world, you know, I was looking at these huge problems, climate change, systemic racism.
I was feeling really hopeless.
And in that cloud of gloom, I remembered a story I had read about this subspecies of rhinoceros in Africa that was going extinct. The last male northern white rhino died in twenty eighteen. His name was Sudan. And this was a huge deal because when the last male dies, suddenly you can't reproduce anymore. And so the species tipped over into a category called functional extinction.
You know, there may be one or two left, but they're not really they don't have a future in the world. I thought a lot about this functionally extinct rhino. And then the fact that my mind really seized on was that there were still two of these rhinos left, both female, a mother and a daughter.
And I just had this overwhelming urge to go and see them. And so I went to Kenya and I spent a week out in the field with the girls. Everybody calls them the girls. The last two, it's nudging who's the mom? And FATA, who's the daughter?
These are huge creatures the size of a thing that modern humans are not used to seeing like we expect, you know, I don't know, SUVs to be this size or something, not living animals. And yet here they are trundling up, munching on grass.
They've got this really thick, dry, cracked looking skin. They've got these huge horns, gigantic snouts, perfectly designed for eating grass so they can press against the ground.
And so I got to stand out there with them. And what I found was that it didn't feel tragic. It made me feel really happy. Here were these two individual creatures that were just living their lives and experiencing the regular daily pleasures that rhinos have always experienced. They come out in the morning and it's dawn and there's this huge, beautiful, low orange sun rising over Mount Kenya. They're just kind of enjoying that warmth. They scratch themselves on their scratching post for five minutes at a time.
And you can hear that wood creaking and they have this wonderful bond with their caretakers who kind of pat them down every morning. And they seem happy. I mean, they seem like normal living mammals, which I guess against the backdrop of that terrible story of their extinction and decline, just felt really wonderful and life affirming. I, as a human being, am in my end times, I'm a middle aged man and I was in my end times from the moment I was born, really we all are.
And I think that that is that classic Buddhist wisdom of all we have is now the only thing that's really permanent is impermanence, is transience. And so being with the girls, it made me think a lot about the biggest questions in life, but also the smallest things in life and how those those two things are braided together, really. So, you know, our mortality, but also the daily pleasures, you know, morning coffee with my wife.
I think I take a lot more pleasure. And now I definitely notice my dogs. They feel their furry foreheads and I just kind of share these long gazes with them now. And I think about the rhinos. Because we have this moment I have this moment with these creatures in my home and with my family, and I take a hot shower and it feels great. And I think I appreciate those things more since I spent that week with the last two northern white rhinos.
So here's my story, a mother and daughter at the end read by Eduardo Ballerini. The day Soudan died, everything felt both monumental and ordinary. It was a Monday grey sky light rain on the horizon, the sun was struggling to make itself seen of the sharp double peaks of Mount Kenya, little black faced monkeys came skittering in over the fence to try to steal the morning carrots. Metal gates creaked and clanked. Men spoke in quiet Swahili. Sudan lay still in the dirt, thick legs folded under him, huge head tilted like a capsizing ship.
His big front lawn was blunt, scarred, worn. His breathing was harsh and ragged. All around him, for miles in every direction, the savannah teamed with life warthogs, zebras, elephants, giraffes, leopards, lions, baboons, creatures doing what they had been doing for eons. Hunting and feeding and scavenging. Breathing and going and being. Until recently, Sudan had been a part of this pulse. But now he could hardly move. He was a giant stillness at the center of all the motion.
Sudan was the last male northern white rhinoceros on earth, the end of an evolutionary rope that stretched back millions of years, although his death was a disaster, it was not a surprise. It was the grim climax of a conservation crisis that had been accelerating for many decades toward precisely this moment. Every desperate measure, legal, political, scientific, had already been exhausted. Sudan was forty five years old, ancient for a rhino, his skin was creased all over, wrinkles radiated out from his eyes.
He was gray, the color of stone. He looked like a boulder that breathed for months now. His body had been failing when he walked, his toes scraped the ground. His legs were covered with sores. One deep gash had become badly infected. The previous day, shortly before sunset, he collapsed for the final time. He struggled at first to stand back up, his caretakers crouched and heaved, trying to help, but his legs were too weak.
The men fed him bananas stuffed with pain pills. Twenty four pills at a time. Veterinarians packed his wounds with medical clay. In the last years of his life, Sudan had become a global celebrity, a conservation icon. He lived like an ex-president under the protection of 24/7 armed guards, visitors traveled from everywhere to see him. Sudan was a perfect ambassador. He weighed more than two tons, but have the personality of a golden retriever. He would let people touch him and feed him snacks.
A whole carrot clamped in his big boxy mouth looked like a little orange toothpick. Tourists got emotional because they knew they were laying hands on a singular creature, a primordial giant, about to slide off into the void. Many hurried back to their cars and cried. Although Sudan was the last male, he was not actually the last of his kind, he still had two living descendants, both female magine a daughter and Fattah, a granddaughter. As Sudan declined, these two stood grazing in a nearby field.
They would live out their days in a strange existential twilight, a state of limbo that scientists call with heartbreaking dryness, functional extinction. There subspecies was no longer viable, two females all by themselves would not be able to save it. In its final moments, Sudan was surrounded by the men who loved him, his caretakers were veterans of the deep Bush, not on any level strangers to death. They had survived close encounters with lions and elephants and buffalo and baboons.
But this was something new. We expect extinction to unfold off stage in the mists of prehistory, not right in front of our faces on a specific calendar day, and yet here it was, March 19th. Twenty eighteen. The men scratched Sudan's rough skin, said goodbye, made promises, apologized for the sins of humanity. Finally, the veterinarians euthanized him for a short time, he breathed heavily and then he died. The men cried. But there was also work to be done.
Scientists extracted what little sperm Sudan had left, packed it in a cooler and rushed it off to a lab. Right there in his pen, a team removed Sudan skin in big sheets, the caretakers boiled his bones in a vat. They were preparing a gift for the distant future. Someday, Sudan would be reassembled in a museum like a dodo or great arc or a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and children would learn that once there had been a thing called a northern white rhinoceros, living creatures would look at the dead one and try to imagine it alive.
But they wouldn't be able to not really. We can never reconstruct all the odd little moments, boring and thrilling, that make a creature a creature that make life life. Sudan's death inspired a media frenzy, a photo of him being caressed by one of his caretakers went viral, collecting millions of likes on social media. The rhino area was overrun and then inevitably the world's attention moved on. In May 2019, just over a year after the death of Sudan, the United Nations issued an apocalyptic report about mass extinction.
One million plant and animal species, it warned, were at risk of annihilation. This obviously was a horror mass extinction is the ultimate crisis, doom of all dooms the disaster toward which all other disasters flow. What could humans do that would be worse than killing the life all around us irreversibly at scale? One million species, a number so large, exceeds the mind it becomes, as Alberca puts it, in the plague, a puff of smoke in the imagination.
And yet we cannot allow ourselves to forget the reality concealed by that puff of smoke, one million is not just a number. It contains countless living creatures individual frogs, bats, turtles, tigers, bees, eels, puffins, owls, each one as real as you or me, each with its own life story and family ties and collection of habits. Together, these animals make up a vast, incredible archive, a collection of evolutionary stories so rich and complex that our highly evolved brains can hardly begin to hold them.
Modern humans, for no good reason, have lit that archive on fire. We are destroying the vaquita, a tiny porpoise that glides around in the Gulf of California, the Christmas Island shrew which scurries or scurried. There may be none left through rainforests on a speck of land out in the middle of the Indian Ocean. And, of course, the northern white rhinoceros. The evolutionary story of the rhinoceros stretches back roughly 55 million years to an alien epic when Europe was a cluster of tropical islands, when cat sized horses galloped across North America.
When Wolf, like carnivores were just beginning to wade into the ocean to start the very strange process of turning into whales. All over the planet, mammals were feeling out what it meant to be mammals groping toward their best forms, some early kinds of rhinos looked like hippos or tapirs. One especially huge relative had such a long neck that it is sometimes called the giraffe rhinoceros. At some point rumbling across the eons, the rhinos settled into the basic form we know today, massive and thick in front, loaded with small eyes, set behind a menacing horn.
Often, too. Although rhinos look dangerous, their life mission has always been peaceful to mention plants and reproduce for millions of years, rhinos fulfilled their goals with great success, without many predators, without any prey, they flourished across Asia and North America, Africa and Europe. Humans put an end to that with primitive weapons, we hunted the rhinoceros. Over time, those weapons grew so strong that the rhinos natural armor stood no chance. The very assets that made them historically indestructible.
Sighs Horns turned out to be liabilities, size made rhinos easy targets. Horns were coveted for all kinds of reasons as trophies, as tools reputed to detect poison and ease childbirth, as the raw material for decorative Yemeni dagger handles and perhaps most notorious as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine, whose practitioners believe that powdered rhino horn can perform a long list of marvels that can cool the blood is headaches, stop vomiting, cure snakebites and much more alongside the acute violence of hunting.
There is the chronic violence of habitat loss strip malls, soccer fields, farms, highways, factories. These two are weapons. Big wild animals need big wild spaces, and modern humanity has left almost nothing untouched. This has resulted in almost unfathomable loss, a holocaust of rhinos, the javin rhinoceros, which once roamed all over Southeast Asia, is now confined to a single national park in Indonesia. Its tiny population, 74, concentrated so dangerously, the conservationists worry it could be wiped out by the eruption of a nearby volcano.
The Sumatran rhino, a small, hairy, adorable loner, is in a similarly poor state today. There are fewer than 80. No, RINO, however, is doing worse than the northern white, its native habitat in Central Africa was roiled by civil wars in the late 20th century, making conservation basically impossible. By the 1970s, a population of thousands was reduced to just 700. By the mid 1980s, only 15 northern whites remained in the wild.
By 2006, that number was four, and then they seem to have disappeared. By 2008, almost certainly the victims of poachers. The northern white rhinoceros had been eliminated from its native range. Fortunately, there was a backup plan in the 1970s, a small reserve supply of northern whites had been captured and relocated to a zoo as a kind of biological life insurance policy. Unfortunately, these animals were dying off faster than they could reproduce. In 2009, the only remaining eligible breeders, Sudan and Suni and Hygiene and FATA, were brought back to Africa to a wildlife service in Kenya.
It was a moonshot. I hope that their native continent might stir something deep in the biology of the Final Four, that it might produce a miracle. Alas, it did not Sooni died, then Sudan, suddenly there were only two northern whites left, there were still out there in the field doing the things their ancestors had always done, eating grass, wallowing in mud holes, taking naps in the shade of trees. But now everything was different. They lumbered around in a world between life and death, both here and not here, every mouthful of grass they ate was one mouthful closer to the last that would ever be eat.
After Sudan died, I could not stop thinking about the last two. What were they like, what did they do all day? I found their existence strangely cheering, although their story was almost unbearably tragic, they themselves were not tragic. They were just rhinos. To meet them would be a chance to look mass extinction in the face. On the long flight from New York to Kenya, I spent my time reading about northern white rhinos. They are not actually white.
They're named most likely was a colonialist misunderstanding. Dutch settlers called them VATE, meaning white and English settlers thought they were saying white. And then they compounded the error by calling Africa's other species of rhino black. But it's all just total nonsense because both in reality are classic rhinoceros grey. In Nairobi, I boarded a little bush plane that rumbled like a flying bus up toward the countryside. As I flew, I stared for the ten millionth time at photos of the last two survivors.
They were not originally from Kenya, no northern white rhino ever was. But this is where they ended up on a former cattle ranch that was now a wildlife conservancy called Opposite, which had had success breeding rhinos. A big rattling truck carried me into the conservancy, down dirt roads, past zebras and warthogs and glowering thickened Cape Buffalo past an official sign that marked the equator and to operate as rhino area. Finally, after all those months of reading and imagining, I found myself out in the field and there they were in the distance, grazing the last two northern whites, the real creatures.
They stood together on a wide, flat stretch of tussock grasses, heads lowered to the ground and against the horizon, they looked like parts of the landscape, like geological deposits, comical flocks of guinea fowl scampered back and forth. Twittering, one of the rhino caretakers brought out a large white bucket and swinging it scattered treats in piles near our feet, carrot's horse pellets. Suddenly, the rhinos were in motion, padding over, looking simultaneously clumsy and graceful, bulky but gliding the skin folds, bouncing huge snouts, wiggling to the rhythm of their clumping steps.
Just like that, my imagination was overridden by the reality the animals approaching became the animals. None of my preparation really prepared me for being in their presence to stand near them is to feel things. It has to feel, first of all, size the blunt creature meaning of it. White rhinos are the second largest land mammals, second only to elephants. They can grow to be six thousand pounds with a curved front horn up to five feet long to stand near something so huge tugs on the gravity of your cells.
You feel present and embodied, being dwarfed by these warm blooded munchers. I was allowed to stand very close, close enough to hear their huffing breath, to see them blink their big, mild eyes, to see that their ears were fringed with a rim of hairs that seemed as delicate as eyelashes, that their tails had little black tufts, their horns up close, were ragged with scraggly fibrous patches like shafts of splintering wood. I watched them press their great wrinkled mouths against the ground, snuffling and chomping.
Sometimes they looked up at me expressionless. White rhinos are sometimes called square mouthed rhinos and upclose. I could see why their lips pressed together in a long, flat line, giving them a constant expression of slightly comic seriousness, like the classic straight faced emoji. At one point to the daughter following a seam of fresh grass ended up grazing right next to me, she stood so close I could study her skin, which was scored with intricate patterns, deep cracks and lines that made me think of tree bark.
It looked in some places like impenetrable armor, but also in others soft. It folded over on itself, around the neck, in the legs, with a luxurious fluidity of molten lava or hot fudge in an ice cream at. She was so close that with permission, I reached out and touched her. Again, everything was different from what I'd imagined, her skin was not smooth, but rough, dry, scratchy. Eventually, I had to leave and back in my tent for the night, I spent all my time reliving those moments in the field, staring at photos and videos, trying to summon the solidity of being with them, and above all, waiting for the sun to rise so I could go back.
In 2009, when Najin and Fatah first came to Africa, they were scared of everything, they would flinch whenever the wind blew, jump away from every rabbit that hopped out of a bush. They were born and raised in a zoo. Their births in 1989 and in 2000 were two of the very few bright spots in the otherwise doomed international project to save the northern whites. Although their ancestors were from Africa, these particular creatures were not they grew up in the Czech Republic in manmade enclosures, eating pre-cut grasses surrounded by humans.
They had no idea how to be wild rhinos. So all that brought in a tutor, a wild southern white rhino named for the southern white subspecies is a close relative of the northern. Once upon a time, there was just one big white rhino population stretching across Africa, but it was separated very likely by an ice age, leaving two groups to evolve at a great distance along roughly parallel tracks. Teddy Roosevelt, a rhino enthusiast, put it nicely.
It is almost as if our bison had never been known within historic times, except in Texas and Ecuador. Over time, the isolated populations developed into two distinct subspecies, northern white rhinos lived on marshy land among tall grasses. They developed wider feet, which some research suggests helped them walk on mud, plus slightly hairier ears. Southern white rhinos lived in the open savanna. Today, the biggest difference between the two is that the southern white rhino population is thriving, at least by rhino standards.
After being nearly hunted to extinction in the late 1980s, a series of strict protections managed to bring them back. The southern white rhino is now a great conservation success story. Tower is fast and aggressive with a horn as sharp as a dragon's tooth, just by moving into the rhino area and doing her wild rhino things, she taught the northern whites certain basic life skills. She taught them, for instance, how to sharpen their horns by scraping them back and forth on the metal gates surrounding their enclosure.
She taught them how to mark their territory by pooping strategically in large piles before they just went wherever they happened to be standing. She taught them how to graze, how to find the short, soft grass and stick their heads back and forth to rip it from the ground with their lips. Above all, Tower taught the two northern whites not to be afraid of Africa, the wind whistling through the acacia trees, the rabbits, the warthogs, the little birds hopping all over their backs and faces.
Today, the northern white rhino seemed perfectly at home in all Pejeta, where everyone refers to them affectionately as the girls, they live in a state of supervised wildness with a daily routine full of little rituals and pleasures. At dawn, the caretakers come clanking in through a series of gates and the girls pad out of their pens to greet them. Rhinos have fairly weak eyes, but their noses and ears are powerful and the girls can identify the men by scent and sound.
White rhinos are surprisingly relaxed. They could kill you if necessary, but they would prefer not to. As Martin Buth, an English writer who spent part of his childhood in East Africa, put it, Whenever one sees a white rhino in the wild, one cannot escape the impression of sighs of incredible benign strength and of a strange inner passiveness. The creature looks peaceful, amiable and secure. If a creature can be said to have discovered transcendental meditation that it must be the white rhino.
The girls, having grown up in a zoo are especially good natured, they're mourning often starts with a thorough scratch down from one of the caretakers, an affectionate chicken. Majime, the older and milder of the two, particularly enjoys this. She will walk over and wait for it, then lean her big body in, exhaling softly from her nostrils as the caretaker rubs her forehead, neck, belly and ears with his hands. After this, both girls will walk off under the orange ball of the dawn sun to take care of their other duties, to wallow in the mud, solemnly sharpen their horns and rub their bodies systematically for minutes at a time against the nub of an old wooden fence post.
To a casual viewer, the girls might look identical, big, great chunks, always together, always doing more or less the same thing. But to their caretakers, they are as distinct as any to family members, a gene the mother has weak back legs and a distinct line near the end of her front lawn, the mark from a song that was used years ago to TriMet. She is sweet, mellow, gentle, and at least with her daughter, sometimes strict.
And every part of the girl's daily routine, najin leads the way a father tries to break the hierarchy to cut in line at the scratching post or to lie down first for a nap. Her mother will restore order with a quick swipe of her horn. Fatah, who is in her early 20s, still has young energy rhinos in captivity, can live well into their 40s. She's curious, unpredictable, sometimes wild. The caretakers touch her, too, but are a little more careful, a little more attentive to her moods.
Fatah has become very close to town. They graze together and occasionally playfully square off to spar with their horns. The humans, meanwhile, give to a very wide berth. She's been known to charge with real menace, once forcing a caretaker to save himself by leaping under a truck. The caretakers are a team of Kenyan men who wear olive green uniforms and floppy hats and speak among them, dozens of languages, Kenya has more than 40 recognized tribes and around 70 languages.
So Kenyans tend to be polyglots. The men live in a cluster of simple round huts right next to the girls enclosure, and they cook themselves modest meals out of modest rations, and their days are structured around the rhythms of the girls they wake at dawn when the girls wake up and go off duty at sunset, when the girls go into their pens for the night. As a result, the girls in the men are remarkably close. The men spend more time with the girls than they do with their own families, some of whom live far away.
With a glance, they can sense the girl's moods and needs that can stall an angry rhino with a word, or if that doesn't work, by raising a hand or in truly dire circumstances, by throwing their floppy green hats in the air. They are around the rhino so much that at night they often dream about them in their dreams, sometimes the rhinos speak, they give them life advice. Outsiders, me included, tend to have romantic notions of this caretaking job, a sacred guardianship of the rarest animals on Earth and in environmental circles, the caretakers have become minor celebrities.
Joseph What Shearer, who goes by Jojo and was featured in that viral photo of the dying Soudan, once met an American woman who had tattooed his name on her arm. The North Carolina Zoo recently named a baby rhino Jojo in his honor. In Kenya, however, the reality is not glamorous at all. The caretakers are poorly paid and set low in the social hierarchy. Kenyans have a complex relationship to the bush and its animals, these huge native, often destructive but increasingly threatened creatures whose perceived exoticism draws in so much foreign money.
Shoveling rhino poop strikes many urban Kenyans as menial and retrograde and slightly embarrassing. When the caretaker's travel outside Old Pejeta to go into town, they never wear their green uniforms. I spent much of my time with one of the younger caretakers, James Mwenda, at thirty, he's the same age as Nojin. Mwenda grew up in a poor village at the foot of Mount Kenya, and his dream was to study literature in college when that fell through. He ended up working in the bush with animals.
At first it was more of a job than a calling. But soon he fell in love with the northern whites. He speaks to them in a husky, affectionate voice, calling them mama and good girl. They follow him around like big, weird dogs. When Sudan got sick, Mwenda felt in a new way the deep burden of extinction. It's emotionally draining, he told me, I don't like failure. Can you imagine watching a species that is going extinct?
He promised the dying rhino that he would share the tragedy of the northern whites with the rest of the world, that he would convert that sorrow into an energy that might help rescue other species. Extinction is a very distant thing for people when they told me so you have to turn extinction into a story, a story in which people can see themselves. He does this largely through social media. Out in the field, Mohinder stalks the girls with a fancy long lens camera, a gift from a foreign friend.
Sometimes you align the grass to get interesting angles for his followers. Mohinder recently starred in Cafaro, an American documentary about the northern white settler Pejeta, and he has traveled from Kenya to give talks in Britain, the United States and Hong Kong, where he remembers people crying when he showed them photos of rhinos killed by poachers. They had been taught as children that the horns fall off naturally and are collected by rangers. Mwenda would like to change the way people think about African travel to break the paradigm of tourist staring out of car windows, marking animals off of checklists and moving on.
Why not spend time seeing how they live? He asked me, spending time helps you connect, just as you would want to spend time with a friend or with a new person to get to know who they are, how they live, how they do things. The same thing with these girls. They're contemporary beings. There's a healing aspect to see them as contemporary beings. The girls spend their days grazing from dawn to dusk and a 100 acre field, it is protected by a tall electric fence along one side of which runs a road where safari vehicles can stop to look.
Sometimes there are traffic jams, Majin, and far too may not be quite as famous as Sudan, but they are still well known in safari circles. Still, bucket list creatures four times a day. A truckload of visitors who have paid a special fee and signed safety waivers are allowed to come inside the enclosure. The girls surround the truck eating snacks while the tourists Chinese, Australian, German, American take photos. During the high season, the Rhinos area parking lot fills up with four by fours and school buses.
I spent one week out in the field with the girls, I would go to them at dawn and leave in the sunset. It was no time at all in the scheme of things, not even a blink of evolution's eye and just the tiniest fraction of the girls big, wrinkled lives. But out there in the field, time hung thick, like fog every day felt like a sliver of eternity. Was the cold season in Kenya, and I stood there through every kind of weather under orange skies and yellow skies and skies as grey as the girls, I watched far to get mad at an egret that landed on her back and tried to buck it off.
I watched Nojin Dipper huge head into the water trough and drink so gently with such delicate sips that she hardly left a ripple.
I watched dung beetles roll perfect spheres of rhino poop, then struggle to wrestle them off to their nests through tall grass. I watched the girls sharpen their horns clumsily, adorably on a little metal gate, scraping the paint right off, threatening to tear the whole thing from its hinges. I was chased briefly by a blind buffalo named Russell. I saw far to shock herself. One morning on the electric fence right on the face, she flinched and raced off at a speed faster than I knew rhinos could run, and a terrified Nojin turned and ran right alongside her during thunderstorms.
I stood there getting soaked, watching the girls change color chocolatey, glistening as the dust on their backs turned dropped by drop into mud. One day I held a cantaloupe sized ball of rhino poop in my palm, then broke it in half pure grass.
I spent an unbelievable number of hours just watching the girls graze. That might sound boring, but they elevated to an art form.
White rhinos eat so much grass that they are sometimes called grass rhinos. Their mouths are perfectly designed for the task in the same way that a great white sharks mouth is perfectly designed to eat seals. White rhino snouts are flat like vacuum attachments, and they tear the grass not with their teeth, but with their lips, which are ridged to clamp the tiniest shoots they can find grass and what looks like a bare patch of dirt. As they graze, the girls swing their heads back and forth, tearing and chewing, tearing and chewing, crunching every mouthful with the sound of muffled thunder.
I kept wondering how could these tiny plants support creatures so huge and how could grass ever be so loud?
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Track Smith Dotcom. Slash the Daily. One day, just after dawn, I got to give Nojin her morning scratched out, Jojo was scratching her, as he did most mornings, and when he stopped, Nojin stood there waiting, seeming to want more. Jojo asked if I wanted to give it a try. I did, I walked over to the mother, rhino curled my fingers and a little hesitantly, much more tentatively than Jojo started to scratch, I scratched her temple, her neck, her big, thick folds.
I felt a roughness and her softness. I wasn't very good at it, to be honest. I was slightly scared, ready to sprint away at any moment. So I didn't really dig in like the caretakers didn't commit my whole fragile body to the task. And I think Najin could tell.
But she stood there anyway, accepting it, and then when I stopped, she swiveled her long head over toward me, stared at me, held still. Jojo said this meant she was asking for more. So I kept scratching. Most of us are taught that rhinos are exotic, perhaps no animal has been more widely misunderstood, especially in the West, for over 1000 years. The historian Kelly Enright points out not a single rhino was seen in Europe and that absence misinformation bloomed.
According to the travels of Marco Polo, rhinos were very ugly unicorns that did not kill their enemies, as you might expect, with their horns. They pinned them onto their knees and licked them to death with their spiky tongues. Even today, in the modern world, rhinos are mythologized and fetishized to the point of unreality.
We look at them like dinosaurs who have outlasted their time, even though they are no older than horses. We see their horns as strange and fantastical, but in fact, they're only compressed carrot, the same material that makes up our hair, the same material, in fact, that made up the fingernails I was using to scratch Nojin. Being with the girls, seeing the lives they share with their caretakers is the perfect antidote to any exoticism. The men treat the rhinos like a cross between little sisters and very good dogs and prized cows and great grandmothers.
The relationship is not predatory, not extractive, all the small daily interactions, the petting and scratching, the nicknames, the looks are exchanges of currencies so ancient that they are impossible to hoard and hardly even need names. Kindness, comfort, friction, warmth, pleasure, presence, safety. Just down the road from the girls or Pejeta has a rhinoceros memorial. It is a place of deep sadness. One tall trees stands alone in the middle of an open field.
And around it sits a score of rough stone piles, each bearing a plaque with a rhino's name. A few of the honored animals were famous and highly protected and therefore able to die of natural causes. Sunni and Sudan, for instance, the last two male northern whites. But a vast majority were not famous and their lives ended terribly at the hands of poachers. They were shot by guns or poison arrows, their horns cut off. I saw markers for rhinos called Carol Miša, Shamsher Zulu, Koka, Parthian.
Some died quickly, but others survived for weeks before succumbing to their injuries, I saw a plaque for Irini, a 19 year old black rhino. The security team found a writhing in pain with the horns already chopped off. She was 12 months pregnant. A 28 year old named Jobe Sami team, blind rhino, shot dead in a rhino enclosure and both horns removed. The names just kept coming, Mwanza Committee and Wego Chima. Max, a six year old white rhino, had had his horns preemptively sawed off by rangers to dissuade the poachers.
But the poacher shot him anyway, perhaps just out of spite. Even on a wildlife conservancy, it is impossible to protect every animal or project is huge and it is surrounded on every side by desperate poverty. On the black market, rhino horn is worth more than gold. The law of supply and demand dictates that the closer rhinos get to extinction, the more valuable their horns become, although the killing happens locally. The market is international and controlled by highly organized crime syndicates.
Powdered rhino horn, in fact, is sometimes consumed like a drug. People mix it with wine at parties in Vietnam. In recent years, poaching has increased rapidly. The girls, in the absence of armed guards, would probably be killed immediately, some billionaire would no doubt pay a fortune to own the horns of the last two northern whites. In the face of all this gloom and against very steep odds, there is still a last ditch effort to save the subspecies.
Since the 1970s, scientists have been collecting tissues from the northern whites. Many of these are housed at several hundred degrees below zero in the frozen zoo, part of a San Diego research center. Like many large animals, rhinos are finicky breeders, both najin and far to have reproductive problems. Neither can carry a baby to term. But their eggs, fertilized with frozen sperm and implanted into the uterus of a healthy southern white rhino, may still be able to create a viable calf.
It is a reproductive Hail Mary, but it is also the best option left. My visit to Kenya came just a few weeks before the first attempt to extract the girl's eggs, a major operation that had everyone nervous. Some of the possible outcomes were bad. They might have no eggs or no viable eggs or the operation could go wrong. And one or both of the animals could die. Zacharia Mutai, the head reino caretaker and a quiet, stoic man, told me that he was so stressed he was having trouble sleeping.
It's delicate, James Mwenda told me it's demanding it's difficult for the animals, maybe it's not always succeeding anything we are leaving room for, but it's the only way out. We have to try. If that's not successful elitism, Perry or projector's media liaison said, then the only option left is basically StemCells Jurassic Park, more or less. The question is harsh, but must be asked, why save one particular subspecies of rhino our planet, cynics will tell you, is not a museum.
We have no sacred duty to the ecological status quo. Nature is brutal. Variants come and go. We have already lost the giraffe, rhinoceros and the woolly rhinoceros and more than 100 other kinds of ancient rhinos. And we seem to be getting along just fine. Conservation is largely sentimentality. The answer to this is, first of all, to knock the cynics hat off, preferably into a wet gutter, and then to kick it a little farther away every time he tries to pick it up.
Then point out that nothing exists in isolation, a rhino is not just a rhino, it is a load-Bearing strand in an elaborate ecological web just by going about its day, a rhinoceros helps keep its whole environment healthy, its grazing mode and ploughs the fields. Its daily walks clear paths through the bush, leaving a hard, flat roads for other animals to follow. A rhinos dung feeds colonies of insects and birds come to feed on the insects and other predators come to catch the birds.
A rhino is not just part of the world. It is a world. Everywhere it goes, it moves in swirling clouds of ox pickers and egrets and guinea fowl. Humans like to pretend that we can stand apart from such elaborate interconnections from the vast web of non-human life. But we too are a part of that web and sooner or later our strand will be cut. At some point, we have to talk about love, about rhinos as givers and receivers of love.
We don't live in a culture that encourages this love is not quantifiable, it doesn't generate doomed statistics. It is ignored in policy debates. And yet in the end, love is the source of all our meaningful values, clearly nudging and far to love each other. They are mother and daughter mammal's. They seek each other's presence and warmth and touch in the wild. Female white rhinos tend to be social living with their calves in groups of about a dozen.
But the girls had only each other day after day. Sometimes I tried to imagine a gene without Fatah or Fatah, without Najin, and it made me extremely sad. The caretakers two very obviously love the girls and the girls as much as rhinos can seem to love them. Back after just a couple of hours. I, too, was in love with these creatures, especially with Magine. And I wanted to stand next to and actually be hugging at all times when they said I should absolutely not hug her.
Your daughter and son need you back is how he put it. Falling in love with the girls up close made me think about one of our most basic human conundrums. Love has a range we are built to love, and we can summon that love to do nearly impossible things. And yet that love has an outer range of maybe 30 yards. It's like a wonderful lamp. It fills the inside of our houses. It washes over our families and our pets.
It extends as we walk to the town around us. But it cannot leap with any of the necessary intensity across city limits or state lines or oceans. It cannot leap except abstractly, with great effort to distant people in need or to strange threatened animals. We love, really love what is near us, what we have touched, what loves us back. Those limitations are a problem when it comes to a crisis like mass extinction or seven point seven billion humans cannot possibly come and spend a week with the girls, which means that humanity at large will never give energy.
Her morning scratched down and feel her warm, grunting breath humanity at large. We'll never truly love them. And so we will never act collectively with the urgency that befits true love, the only kind of urgency that might work. And that's just the girls, too, particularly charismatic animals right on the brink of extinction. What about, let's say, the Northwest born in Orangutang, an orange ape whose cheeks look as if they're being pinched and stretched by a very enthusiastic grandmother.
There are about 1500 left. What about the black footed ferret, sneaky little fur tube of the Great Plains? There are fewer than 400 left in the wild. The hump headrests, the giant panda, the dugong, the hawksbill turtle, the polar bear, the Cross River gorilla, the monarch butterfly. What about the whole Amazon rainforest? What about the coral reefs? We have to proceed somehow as if our love extended to creatures and places it could extend to, but does not, we need to fit humanity with some kind of prosthetic love extensions.
The girls do not exist for us. They are not symbols or oracles. They are not there to answer our existential questions or to help us save the world. They are something better and simpler. They are the girls. On my last day in Kenya, I walked to the water trough and said goodbye to Nojin. She reached her head out toward me with that deadly horn extended and just looked. She stood still bulky, watching me and I watched her back, and after a while she bent her neck down to take one of her long, quiet drinks, then she looked back up at me, her snout shining with water.
I reached my hand out and touched her horn cautiously. Twice, she stood still staring. I told Nadine that it had been very nice to meet her. I could not make myself walk away as long as I stayed close to the girls. They would continue to fill my whole vision. Machines stared at me for a while longer, snuffling gently. Then she turned and walked away. Of course, I could not stay with the girls, I had to go back home.
A few weeks after I left in August 2019, I learned that the egg extraction operation had been a success. The girls were fine and the team of scientists had indeed managed to harvest some eggs, five from Fatah, five from Najin, seven of these were successfully fertilized. Of those, seven. Three went on to become embryos. They now sit in a deep freeze, waiting for the next uncertain steps. Implantation gestation, potentially someday a birth. It is still a long shot, and researchers caution that it could take many years, but even if everything goes perfectly in the labs and in the fields, there may not be enough genetic diversity left to seed a new population of healthy northern whites.
The girls, meanwhile, walked back out to the field to do what they had always done. Back home, I looked constantly at my photos and videos of the rhinos trying to hold on to my time with them. But inevitably, gradually, they slipped away, their massive presence turned into a massive absents. Some months later, as I was trying to write about the girls trying to bring them to life on the page, a global pandemic hit the whole world shut down.
We were all suddenly absent to one another. It was hard to focus on the crisis of mass extinction when our own species was suffering and dying right in front of us at such an alarming rate. Still, the girls continue to roam through my mind in this moment of total upheaval. I found their existence to be anchoring the knowledge that they were both still out there in the field, side by side, chewing grass under thunderous skies, living, as Wendell Berry once wrote, with a piece of wild things who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I kept remembering in particular, one moment out in the field. Have you ever heard a rhino snoring before, James Mwenda asked me one afternoon we were sitting on the edge of a hole, an old aardvark den that had collapsed and was now used mainly by warhawks. The girls were napping nearby all around us. The birds were stitching their crazy quilt of songs. Hooting, chipping, whirring, beeping, cooing, grinding, sliding. And yes, in the midst of all that noise, like a distant tractor gently idling, one of the rhinos was snoring.
It was indeed my first time. And yet the sound was familiar. Exactly the same kind of rhythmic rasp you would hear coming out of your stepfather or your pet dog or your best friend. It was just a regular old snore, the universal soundtrack of a mammal deep in slumber. The noise was coming from Najin, Fatah was sleeping silently next to her, her big square snout smashed on the ground, her legs curled under her like a kittens. The two of them looked armored but defenseless, adorable and sad.
Watching the girls take naps was always one of my favorite things, because it required every time an elaborate and tender choreography machine hobbling a bit because of her weak back legs, which was a spot to lie down on while Fatah stood guard over her, waiting patiently making sure the field was safe for sleep. Only after Nojin had slid a huge Bulc entirely to the ground could to rest herself. Before she did, however, she would essentially cuddle with her mother, tip her head down and touch her own front lawn gently to her mother's front lawn and press her body into her mother's body.
And father would slide down flat a few feet away from her. I could not get enough of watching them sleep because, of course, the northern white rhino nap was never just a regular nap. Every time the girls closed their eyes, all the northern white rhino consciousness left on planet Earth temporarily blinked out. And when they woke up, it blinked back on again. Suddenly, in the midst of Nojin snoring, another sound broke out over the field, a rumble even louder than the snore.
This new noise went on and on. It sounded like a trombonist warming up, feeling out the acoustics of a very large concert hall. This was it became clear, a rhinoceros fart. One of the girls was breaking wind in her sleep emphatically, sincerely, admirably, without restraint, once the noise died down, I asked my friend if he could tell which of the rhinos had done it. He left. The two of them, he said, the two of them together, they did it at once, they struck me in that moment as the very definition of magic, and I laughed with crazy joy.
Life speaks to us in so many languages. The last two northern white rhinos, mother and daughter, had passed gas together in perfect unison in the middle of a happy sleep. My friend and I had just heard the rarest symphony in the world, one biological chord rising, fading, dispersing, expanding. This was recorded by autumn. Autumn is an app you can download to listen to lots of audio stories from publishers such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic.
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