Update March 20, 2018: Sudan, the world’s last male northern white rhino, age 45, died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on March 19th, 2018. He was being treated for age-related complications that led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones, as well as extensive skin wounds. After his condition worsened significantly, the veterinary team from the Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta and Kenya Wildlife Service made the decision to euthanise him. Read his full story below:

They're called endlings. From "Benjamin" the thylacine and "Martha" the passenger pigeon to Lonesome George and Toughie the treefrog, these animals have gone down in history for the most tragic of reasons: being the very last of their kind. And in the not-too-distant future, another name will join their ranks out of the wilderness of Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy. There, under 24-hour armed guard, the world's three remaining northern white rhinos are living out their days. They're known as Sudan, Najin and Fatu.

On one of the final stops of their cross-Africa trek, the team with the Elephant Ignite Expedition (read more about their journey here) was given the opportunity to meet these "last" rhinos: 

All of the world's rhino species are under threat, and some, like the Javan rhino, are edging dangerously close to extinction – but the fate of the northern white subspecies is already sealed. 

At 43, Sudan, the only male, is at the upper end of his life expectancy, and far too old to mate. His two female companions, meanwhile, are now both incapable of reproducing naturally. Unless science allows us to resurrect the subspecies Jurassic Park-style (and that might not be impossible), these three animals are the last northern white rhinos the world will ever see.

Yet not that long ago, the subspecies roamed across vast territories from southern Chad to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Even by the 1960s, there were some 2,000 of the rhinos left. In the decades since then, however, rampant poaching and habitat loss, exacerbated by regional conflicts and political instability, whittled those numbers down to just 30 by 2003 and only 15 a year later. The last sighting of a northern white rhino in the wild was reported in 2006. (Around the same time, Africa lost the last survivors of another rhino subspecies: the western black rhino.

While Najin and Fatu (and their precious eggs) still live, scientists are not giving up hope of a last-ditch rescue. But even if some cutting-edge combination of egg harvesting, IVF and genetic tinkering could allow scientists to produce a northern white calf in the future, such plans have their skeptics. To sustain itself, a species needs more than just a few individuals, and it must have safe habitat in which to roam – an increasingly rare commodity for rhinos in both Africa and Asia. 

According to wildlife-monitoring group TRAFFIC, around 1,312 animals were killed for their horns across the African continent in 2015. Poaching in Asia is also on the rise. 

Those grim statistics are why some experts argue that scant conservation dollars should go to species that have a better chance of bouncing back, and be channelled into tackling the problem that brought the northern white to the very edge of extinction in the first place: poaching for the burgeoning wildlife trade. 

More than anything, this is the lesson Ol Pejeta's last rhinos can teach us. To meet Sudan, Najin and Fatu is to be confronted with a warning in walking, breathing form of what might happen to the continent's other rhinos – and its elephants, pangolins and multiple other species – unless we find a way to protect them from human greed.

Read more about the Elephant Ignite Expedition: