As readers of Greek mythology (and Harry Potter!) will know, a phoenix is a mythical bird that combusts into flames at the end of its life and then is born again from the ashes. There is hope that recent advances in science make such an animal a reality and could secure a future for wildlife.
The very sad news that Sudan, the last remaining male from the northern white rhino sub-species, has died recently, brought the world’s attention once again to the plight of endangered wildlife. The species was destined for extinction before the death of Sudan; the only two other members alive are his daughter and granddaughter, so they could not mate with each other because they are so closely related.
However, conservation scientists are recovering genetic material from Sudan in the hope that they can develop IVF for rhinos and keep the species alive, using eggs from the two remaining northern white rhinos, which will then be carried by a southern white rhino surrogate (the other sub-species of white-rhino).
The plight of the northern white rhinos is emblematic of the wider problem facing a host of species and ecosystems around the world; human life is leading to poaching, destruction and pollution of habitat, and the introduction of alien species that usurp native creatures that may previously have lived happily for hundreds of years. For a long time, the Dodo was the most iconic image of extinction, but as more and more high-profile species suffer in the modern age, many more animals represent the growing damage caused by humanity.
The contest for which animal will be the 21st century’s iconic image of man-made extinction is surely the one competition that nobody wants to win. Indeed, we can only hope that the alternative happens; that we start to sit-up and take notice of the harm we are doing, and change, so that Sudan becomes an icon of a century where we finally reigned back the harm we do and started to protect the earth and the other animals we share our home planet with.
So, we need a combination of science and human will to find a way to keep Sudan’s genes alive: we need science to overcome the technical obstacles to creating living offspring; and we need human will to provide genuine sanctuary to those offspring, to ensure they have a secure habitat for the species to recover.
Here’s hoping that mythology will come true, and Sudan will one day rise from the ashes.