Zachary Mutai stares blankly at the empty enclosure that was once home to Sudan at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County.
Mr Mutai looks visibly sad as he receives guests who have come to pay tribute to Sudan, the last male Northern White Rhino.
Mutai, the head keeper of northern white rhinos at the conservancy had spent the last eight years with Sudan before his death on Monday 19.
The emptiness and sadness at at the conservancy is evident from the forlon look of most warders. Clearly the wild, has lost a giant.
“Waking up to an empty enclosure is heartbreaking. Passing next to his pen as I attend the remaining two females is even worse, everything seem so different without Sudan here. We were best of friends for almost eight years since he was brought in from Dv?r Králové Zoo in Czech Republic in December 2009. I miss him terribly,” Mutai says.
James Mwendwa, who has been taking care of Sudan for the past four years, is lost for words.
When Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Dv?r Králové Zoo announced Sudan’s death, the photo that was released was icon image of Sudan and Mutai, his bosom buddy and caretaker.
In the photo that went viral globally, Mutai is pictured squatting and playfully stroking Sudan by its horn.
“That was the last photo I took with Sudan alive. It was on a Sunday when he miraculously woke up after several days of being unwell. It was after a short rain period when he woke up and walked to the females’ den. It was his last miraculous visit. He went back to his enclosure minutes later. Then his health deteriorated,” Mutai says.
Sudan was suffering from age-related complications that led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones combined with extensive skin wounds.
The veterinary team from the Dv?r Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta and Kenya Wildlife Service decided to euthanise him, when it was obvious he could no longer wake up.
“His condition worsened significantly in the last 24 hours; he was unable to stand up and was suffering a great deal. The veterinary team from the Dv?r Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta and Kenya Wildlife Service to euthanise him,” said Ol Pejeta on Tuesday in a press statement.
Just like he won the heart of Mutai, Sudan was loved by many across the world.
“He was gentle. He was loved by many. He was just like a human being, you talk to him and he responds. Most rhinos are friendly like that. We know when they are not feeling well, when they are happy and when they are just naughty.
“Because you become so attached to them; when they die, it’s heartbreaking. For the last four years, Sudan became a best friend,” Mr Mwendwa says.
During the last month, Sudan was kept under Intensive Care Unit where he was on 24-hour care by a veterinary officer.
The final hours
“At some point, he was too sick and looked like he was expressing pain, more so like he was crying and at the verge of giving up. It was distressing to witness these low moments especially when he struggled to wake up,” Mutai recalls.
The situation, he says, was agonising.
“During those final days, it was intense. I did not want Sudan to die in my presence. I wanted to hide the emotions and the pressure I was feeling. I knew, in case anything happened to him, there would be so many calls from all over the globe given that he had won so many hearts,” he says.
Though Mutai witnessed the death, he has not taken a leave to go heal, he is still on hand to answer questions from Sudan’s friends.
“It has been hectic, we receive video calls, emails chats and calls all over the world and everyone wants answers. Others come here physically to find closure. It is so sad, it is just like losing a loved one,” he says.
The interesting thing about Sudan’s death is that, like most prophets he was never celebrated at home.
“I realised Sudan was so popular overseas than in Kenya. Whereas Kenyans were wondering who Sudan was, the international community was swift in giving glowing tributes,” Mr Mwendwa says.
With the death of Sudan, the global conservation community is hopeful that the In Vitro fertilisation being planned for will save the species from extinction.
In the meantime, Sudan’s candlelight continues to glow.