Monument to Sudan
There can be few moments more poignant in life than to witness the extinction of a species and such a moment was my very sad experience.
I went to Ol-Pejeta in Kenya with photographer Steve Russell to capture the three-dimensional data and exact likeness of the last of a kind.
The animal in question was not an exotic beetle or obscure insect, nor was it a small bird or uncharismatic rodent, although that would be melancholic enough. This was “Sudan” the last male northern white rhino alive, three and a half meters long, second only to elephants in land mammal size and weighing almost three tons.
Rhinos have always fascinated people and for centuries, artists across the world have celebrated our fascination with these amazing creatures as Paleolithic cave paintings, Saharan and South African rock engravings attest, and of course in more recent times, the renaissance artist Albrecht Durer created the most famous image of a Rhino ever.
Sudan was no exception although recumbent he was immediately impressive. His huge bulk defined by the architecture of his skeleton, his long back and arching ribcage from huge shoulders as big as a car, his heavy skin, amour-like, fell in heavy folds around his neck and limbs. Up close Sudan was even more remarkable, big trumpet like ears constantly swiveling, alert to every sound, his dark eyes set in a delicate crisscross of wrinkles, moist nostrils and mobile expressive lips equally creased. Tolerant and accepting of all the human activity surrounding him he was every inch the gentle giant.
As a child growing up in Uganda, I recall vividly seeing Northern White Rhinos in the wild where they fulfilled a central role in the grassland ecology of the region and felt profoundly moved to be now looking into the eyes of the last of their type. I also felt outraged that we, people are the ones responsible for his species terminal days. The abstract notion of extinction that we mostly associate with dinosaurs and mammoths was actually confronting me with a real and emotive force.
These amazing mammals have had the misfortune of living in one of the most war-torn areas of Africa, which combined with a ludicrous financial value awarded to rhino horn has seen their species annihilated.
I resolved there and then that I would have to create a monument to Sudan and his species; a permanent marker of his existence, a plea for all other species we are having an immense impact on and to try and communicate something of what it felt like to be in the presence of such a magnificent animal. However, although this monument may communicate something of Sudan’s physical presence, it cannot replace the living breathing awesome individual Sudan was. It cannot replace the extraordinary product of millions of years of evolution and the ecological keystone his species was.
It is just possible that groundbreaking new research in the field of veterinary in-vitro fertilisation could use sperm and eggs harvested from Sudan and other northern white rhinos to recreate new individuals in the future. The problems are considerable and in the meantime, the natural environment where these Rhinos lived will have been permanently altered by their absence, nonetheless, the ingenuity of humankind extends to creative ends just as it does to destructive ones and that must be applauded.
Sudan died shortly after we recorded him. Will the model of Sudan suitably express his pathos and beauty will the sadness eclipse the glimmer of hope the scientists are working so hard to achieve and will the people who knew Sudan best feel this was a fitting tribute.
Outrage and sadness were galvanized into energy and together with the digital and modeling teams at Pangolin, we have made our monument. On one side, Sudan lies on the ground his head heavy with advanced years and the weight of his iconic, relict status. On the other side, he tilts his huge head up slightly and raises a foreleg; a symbol of hope for the moment a viable embryo created with his sperm is born, struggles up and rescues his species from total extinction.
Both the 3 foot and life size models will be cast into bronze editions of 25 and 5 numbered casts respectively and will be sold to help fund the valuable environmental and conservation work done by Ol-Pejeta and their parent organization, Fauna and Flora international.
Rungwe Kingdon 2018