A last-ditch attempt to stave off extinction as Sudan goes on Tinder

A documentary on the last male of the northern white rhinoceros can’t decide to proceed with a light step or a heavy heart

Sudan, slow, unhappy and torpid as he pads glumly around the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, his retirement home

Sudan, slow, unhappy and torpid as he pads glumly around the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, his retirement home

 

The love life of Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros in the world, is understandably complicated. Currently, it is as slow, unhappy and torpid as he is, padding glumly around the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, his retirement home.

In Sudan: The Last of the Rhinos (Wednesday, BBC Two, 9pm), he makes for an unlikely celebrity, but extinction can do a lot to raise your profile.

Recently, in an occurrence this nature documentary finds too trivial to mention, Sudan joined Tinder. For a creature with no opposable thumbs, this really seemed like a last throw of the dice for the species. Otherwise, mention of his predicament trends under the hashtag: #lastmalestanding.

Both social media campaign are gloomily ironic, because although there are two remaining females, there is no procreational hope for the once-plentiful African species. It is already extinct. “Humans did this,” says the biologist Thomas Hildebrant, “and humans should correct it.”

Directed by Rowan Deacon and prepared to travel the world for its detail, the documentary is unsure whether to proceed with a light step or a heavy heart. It proceeds with biographical cinereel, before building up a dual picture of threat: poachers in an unstable continent on one side, peddling its horn as an aphrodisiac, and safari park rustlers on the other. Sudan was captured by the latter and brought, of all places, to the former Czechoslovakia in 1974.

Repairing to present-day Dvur Kralove, where Josef Vágner’s zoo once held seven white rhinos, family and staff recall the animals’ passivity in captivity. “I guess they had no choice,” says one keeper. If anything, though, Sudan himself had grown violently disturbed; refusing to mate, attacking the females and killing one of his keepers. Once again, though, it’s the humans who take the blame.

Even before we follow the international efforts to revive the species by flying Sudan to Garamba – “Make love and multiply,” instructs a Czech politician, with an ill-fitting levity that informs much of the programme. “You are not tourists.” – the programme’s focus shifts to human efforts. Cryonics, gamete harvesting, surrogate species and artificial insemination will play a more significant role in re-starting the northern white rhino than Sudan will.

“It’s morally incumbent on us to try to make this happen,” says Hildebrandt. The programme wishes it had better news on that front – a breakthrough is hoped for this year – but so far nothing. It ends then, not as a lament for a celebrity rhino and his species, but as a study in human endeavours, whether perverse and ruinous, or shame-faced and progressive.

The northern white rhino is extinct, it knows, but we’re the ones who are threatened.

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