The Last Goodbye

Sudan (pictured below), was the last living male Northern White Rhino left on this planet is comforted moments before he passed away by Joseph Wachira March 19, 2018, in northern Kenya. Sudan was brought to Kenya from the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic in 2009. He died surrounded by people who loved him at Ol Pejeta conservancy and has been an inspirational figure for many across the world. If there is any meaning in his death, it’s that Sudan can be our final wake up call. In a world of 7 billion, we need to start recognizing that we are not separate from nature. When we see ourselves as part of the landscape and part of nature, then saving nature is really about saving ourselves.

I made the heartbreaking journey back to Kenya to say goodbye to Sudan, the world’s LAST male northern white rhino alive on the planet, moments before he passed away. I met Sudan nine years ago after I heard about a plan to airlift four of the world’s last northern white rhinos from a zoo in the Czech Republic to Kenya. It sounded like a storyline for a Disney film of captive animals returning to the wild dusty plains. In reality, it was a desperate, last-ditch effort to save a species. At the time, there were only eight of these rhinos left, all living in captivity.

When I saw this gentle, hulking creature in the Czech snow, surrounded by smokestacks and humanity, it seemed so unfair. He looked ancient, part of a species that has lived on this planet for millions of years, yet could not survive mankind.

I remember so clearly when Sudan first set foot on the African soil. The skies darkened and torrential rains came moments after we arrived. He put his head in the air to smell the rains and immediately rolled around on the ground. It was his first mud bath since he left the continent as a two-year-old, taken from Sudan, the country with which he shares his name. That Sudan was moved to the Dvůr Králové Zoo may have saved his life; the last known wild rhinos were poached on the border of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2004.

In Kenya, I returned to say goodbye. Moments before he died, Sudan was surrounded by love, together with the people who committed their lives to protect him and giving him the good life he enjoyed. There were the people from the Dvůr Králové Zoo, and his six dedicated keepers from Ol Pejeta Conservancy, who spent more time with him than with their own children. Veterinarians and other people from Kenya Wildlife Service were present as well. Most of them had been crying for days. I gave Sudan one last scratch on his ear. He leaned his heavy head into mine and the skies opened up just as they had when he arrived there nine years ago. He perked his head up in the pouring rain. All was silent except for one go-away-bird.

Poaching is not slowing down. It’s entirely possible, even likely, that if the killing continues, rhinos—along with elephants and a host of lesser-known plains animals—will be functionally extinct in our lifetime.

The plight of wildlife and the conflict between poachers and increasingly militarized rangers has received much-needed attention. But very little has been said about the indigenous communities on the front lines of the poaching wars, and the incredible work being done to strengthen them. We often forget that the best protectors of these landscapes are the local communities. Their efforts are ultimately the best immunization against forces that threaten both their wildlife and way of life. My hope is that Sudan’s legacy will serve as a catalyst to awaken humanity to this reality.

Sudan’s death could mean the extinction of his species, though scientists are considering other options involving two remaining females, including stem cell procedures and harvesting eggs. But if there is meaning in Sudan’s passing, it’s that all hope is not lost. This can be our wake-up call. In a world of more than 7 billion people, we must see ourselves as part of the landscape. Our fate is linked to the fate of animals.

Ami Vitale’s journey as a photographer & filmmaker have taken her to over 100 countries where she has witnessed civil unrest & violence, but also surreal beauty and the enduring power of the human spirit. She has lived in mud huts & war zones, contracted malaria, & donned a panda suit all in keeping with her philosophy of “living the story.” After more than a decade covering conflict, she couldn’t help but notice that the less sensational but equally true stories were often not getting told. Her belief that “you can’t talk about humanity without talking about nature” led her to chronicle her journey from documenting warzones to telling some of the most compelling wildlife &environmental stories of our time, where individuals are making a profound difference in the future of this planet.

Organised by the Sharjah Government Media Bureau (SGMB), the four-day XPOSURE 2019 featured 1,112 works by 357 photographers from around the world. It also offered amateurs, professionals and hobbyists in the region a unique opportunity to hear and network with 53 leading names in the industry through a variety of technical workshops, and focus group engagements as well as seminars. The festival attracted 15,000 visitors over the 4-day event.