Sudan at the Ol Pejeta conservancy, December 5, 2016. (AFP / Tony Karumba)

The last rhino standing

Nairobi, Kenya -- Ol Pejeta was somber the last time I was there. It was beautiful, under the cover of tender greenery that's characteristic of the onset of Kenya's rainy season. But gloom hung in the air. Anyone who had had a chance to interact with Sudan and experience him the way I did could sense it. His handlers, as polite and welcoming as always, seemed beside themselves.

What a change from 2009, when Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino who died last week, first arrived at the Ol Pejeta, the wildlife conservancy at the foot of Mt. Kenya. Back then, there was an excited fuss in the air on welcoming him and several females.

Sudan emerges from his crate after arriving at the Ol Pejeta reserve in Kenya on December 20, 2009. (AFP / Tony Karumba)

I remember being surprised at how calm he was, as I snapped photos of him and the females back then. We were hustling and bustling all around him and climbing on his crate to try and get a good picture. But he was completely calm.

In the intervening years, I and other photographers often returned to take photos of the gentle giant, to document his progress in his new home. I feel privileged to have spent as much time with him as I did. The guys at Ol Pejeta were very kind and accommodating to my colleagues and me whenever we needed to come for a shoot.

Sudan with one of his caregivers, December 5, 2015. (AFP / Tony Karumba)

When we first heard that he had contracted a viral infection a few weeks ago, there was a huge sense of loss. We knew he would probably have to be put down about a week and a half before it actually happened. At first, there was still hope that he would recover. But then his condition worsened, and they had to put him down. A colleague photographer from the office traded places with me and documented Sudan’s demise. I was glad to switch -- I would rather not have had to see him in that state. I prefer to remember him as his gentle, tranquil, majestic, behemoth self.

(AFP Graphics)

When I heard he had died, I was out on assignment. On our way back to the office in Nairobi, we took a detour so that we could stop at Ol Pejeta.

It’s kind of ironic, because I was out covering a story about poachers. Sudan had managed to escape the poaching crisis in the early 2000s that wiped out nearly all of the northern white rhino population. And there I was, covering poachers while he died of natural causes in safety.

Jeremiah Kimathi, one of rhino caregivers at the Ol Pejeta conservancy, walks on March 20, 2018, among the head stones that mark the graves of rhinos who have been killed or died of natural causes in Nanyuki, north of Nairobi. (AFP / Tony Karumba)

After he died, I saw some emotional tributes and reactions about him. His story was all over both the national and the international press. Tourism is so important to Kenya’s economy, and he had been a key part of that system. He was a major attraction.

It’s encouraging to see the achievements and continuing progress in research on alternative methods for protecting and preserving nature. Their eventual success will give a lifeline to the northern whites. It’ll be a well-deserved tribute to Sudan, and his lasting legacy.

Sudan explores his new surroundings after arriving at Ol Pejeta on December 20, 2009. (AFP / Tony Karumba)

I think his death is just the natural order of things, even though it was such a historic moment. Because he was the last northern white male, he was the last hope for the species. It’s natural that people would be so saddened by his passing.

He was the last symbol of his kind. You would have to be made of stone not to have been moved by his death. It’s not something you can rationalize -- it’s just a powerful feeling.

This blog was written with Tori Otten in Paris.

Maasai warriors pose with Sudan on June 18, 2017. (AFP / Tony Karumba)


Tony Karumba