Sudan had never wanted to be the last male of his species. As children they’d always known one of them might have to shoulder the responsibility – the perils of being a slow-moving animal in a world of armour-piercing bullets – but he’d always assumed the burden would fall to one of the others. Roger, for example, or Reginald. They’d all had such good sensible rhinoceros-sounding names it had seemed like a sure thing. Nobody had even considered the possibility that he might outlive them all. But here he was, trampling all over tradition with his giant two-tonne hooves, flanked by an armed escort day and night as though he were some sort of celebrity.
He remembered when they’d brought him the news. Rodney’s been eaten by a lion, the meerkats had told him. Blood everywhere. Bones carried off by the hyaenas. Nothing left but the horn.
That just leaves you, mate, they’d said. Don’t let it change you. Don’t go thinking you’re a big shot. Big game, pal, that’s what you are and don’t you forget it.
To give them credit, the lions had been very apologetic about the whole thing. ‘Administrative oversight,’ one of them had purred soothingly. ‘We thought he was a water buffalo.’
‘Water buffalo don’t have horns like these!’ he’d shouted.
‘What can I say, zoology really isn’t our thing. We once bit the fender off an armoured jeep after mistaking it for a gazelle. Picking aluminium out of our teeth for months after that, we were. Why can’t everyone just wear a name tag, that’s what I’d like to know, saves a lot of bother. If there’s two things we could use more of on the veldt it’s name tags and gazelles.’
She broke off until another lion prodded her meaningfully. ‘And northern white rhinoceroses’, she added quickly. ‘Goes without saying.’
They’d even sent him a wreath, which he thought was rather a lovely gesture. Just a shame that it was quite clearly made of rhinoceros hide and tied together with the tracking device he’d last seen squeezed tight around Rodney’s ankle. Still, he reminded himself, lions will be lions and all that, and it was awfully sweet of them to go to the trouble.
The tributes hadn’t stopped coming in ever since it happened. The tickbirds had offered him a year’s cleansing service free of charge, and the council of the watering hole had made him an honorary hippopotamus. He understood from the antelopes that the humans had even put his story on BuzzFeed, which didn’t mean much to him but had gotten them all terribly excited. It was all very gratifying, of course, but he couldn’t help feeling just the teensiest bit guilty at receiving all this attention for simply not being dead.
It was funny how other animals only started to take an interest in your species when there was hardly any of it left. What about the others, he wanted to shout, all those thousands who’d copped a round through the forehead and vanished in smoke up credulous homo sapiens nostrils; didn’t they count for anything?
Longevity seemed to him a rather stupid quality to celebrate. He hadn’t even been the most talented rhino of his generation. You should have met Rupert, he wanted to tell them all. Now there was a proper rhinoceros. Bullish. Thick-skinned. Horny. A rhino, he blushed at the memory, who wouldn’t have been scared witless at the thought of restarting a species all on his own. With the whole world watching, Rupert would have impregnated all four of its remaining she-rhinos with as little care as goring a lioness or tossing a wildlife photographer over his shoulder.
As it was, all that pressure was now on him. How on earth was he expected to perform under those conditions? Never more than a step away from four professional soldiers with gleaming assault rifles, he couldn’t even relieve himself anymore without developing stage fright. No wonder pandas never reproduced in captivity. It was a wonder that anybody did! Only humans, he’d noticed, didn’t mind getting down to it when other people were watching. He’d caught a couple of tourists once doing it rhino-style in the long grass. They’d positively seemed to welcome the attention.
The guards weren’t much help. Certain sex, they used to say, shaking their heads admiringly. You don’t know your luck. He could feel their resentful looks piercing through his carapace. They’d probably kill to be in his position. If you thought about it logically, of course, that wasn’t such a bad way of going about it.
How did that song go again? If you were the only girl rhino in the world, and I were the only boy? Rupert had written that. What a talent. We shall never see his like again, he thought to himself. Not now that it’s all down to me.