Goodbye to Sudan

In early 1970, documentary and nature cinematographer Eric Daarstad hired me to be his camera assistant on a television documentary for the GE Monogram series that would be photographed at a number of game reserves in Kenya and Tanzania. The subject was the black rhinoceros, then an endangered species. Titled Kifaru: The Black Rhinoceros, the film was framed on a human level to follow and document the life and work of Canadian wildlife biologist John Goddard, his wife, Shelley, and their 9-year-old daughter, Penny.

We photographed in eastern Kenya’s Tsavo National Park in the area near the entrance of Voi Village, where the animals were dusted red rather than black — covered with Oklahoma-like “red dirt.” We also photographed many scenes in Tanzania in the Ngorogoro Crater, a species-rich preserve nestled in the bowl of an extinct volcano; it was a few hours drive from Olduvai Gorge, where Louis and Mary Leakey had been conducting studies of the skeletal remains of early man.

Goddard was conducting a similar examination, but with a living species, the black rhino, which looked like some great beast from an antediluvian age. Goddard had devoted his working life to studying these fascinating creatures, photographing, sketching and tagging them, recording distinctive features such as ears, horns and dentation. In order for Goddard to work in close, the animal had to be darted with a syringe from an air rifle. This led to some of the more exciting moments in the documentary; at one point, a drugged and downed rhino regained consciousness suddenly, leaping nimbly to its feet and charging toward John, Eric and me, and then toward our retreating Land Rover, which already bore the scars of frequent rhino battering.

All of John’s work was dedicated to documenting the rapidly diminishing numbers of black rhinos. In the early 1970s, the white rhino was not considered to be in danger. Now the tally has changed, and it is the white rhino that is in jeopardy.

The last surviving male white rhino had to be euthanized at Ol Pejeto Conservancy in Kenya this month. His name was Sudan, and he was 45 years old, the equivalent to almost a century in human years. Sudan was protected around the clock by dedicated gamekeepers. News outlets around the world have covered his demise. Two surviving females and Sudan’s preserved sperm offer the only hope for the species’ survival, which is problematic at best.

Maybe it’s because these badly myopic creatures are so vulnerable, or because of their primeval appearance, which many find ugly, but I have always harbored a deep affection for all rhinos. I can offer no better tribute to this unusual blog subject than this video:

This quiet and intimate tribute reminds me of what I felt during the many hours I spent on the grasslands of East Africa, watching these gentle animals peacefully browse — and photographing them safely from inside our vehicle.

Sudan, rest in peace.


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