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A last desperate chance to save Northern White rhinos

Within a few years it will be impossible to get close to these huge beats - they will have disappeared from the Earth. Credit: ITV News/ John Ray

It is not often you get this close to a rhino. Close enough to reach out and discover that famously thick skin is surprisingly soft.

Face to face with two tons of unpredictable muscle; it is an awe-inspiring moment; in all honestly a little nerve wracking too.

For me, a once in a life-time opportunity. Within a few years will be impossible.

My encounter is with Sudan, the last surviving male Northern White - a species almost wiped from the planet by men who prize rhino horn more than the living animal.

One of the last female Northern White rhinos. Credit: ITV News/ John Ray

At the Ol Pejeta range in Kenya, Sudan is under 24 hour armed guard, but the battle with the poachers is already lost.

Sudan is unable to father young; the two females with whom he shares his twilight years are unable to conceive.

What hope there is lies with an international group of conservationists and specialists who are pushing rhino science further than it has gone before to pull the Northern White back from brink of oblivion.

These rhinos are kept under 24-hour armed guard. Credit: ITV News/ John Ray

Their latest plan, agreed this week, is to harvest Sudan’s sperm and eggs from the Ol Pejeta females in the hope of finding a surrogate mother among another rhino species.

It’s never been done before and the know-how lags far behind the aspiration.

The last of these huge animals. Credit: TV News/ John Ray

Which leads to the intriguing possibility of one day re-surrecting the Northern White, even if Sudan and the other survivors are dead.

"A lot of the techniques we are using are experiment," Richard Vigne of Ol Pejeta tells me.

We could be looking at the disappearance of these animals for a period of time, but their preservation as embryos for example for re-introdction onto planet earth at some point in the future.

That’s definitely a possibility.

– Richard Vigne

Another member of the team is South African rhino specialist Dr Peter Morkel.

Twenty years ago, we followed his and others’ ultimately doomed efforts to save the last Northern Whites in the wild.

I ask him to look another twenty years into the future. Will there still be Northern Whites around to see?

"Personally I think it is unlikely, but I prefer to be optimistic," he says. "They are just so special. Our world would be a much poorer place without them."