Nfld. & Labrador

This N.L. vet took care of the last male northern white rhino in the world

Cheryl Laite always dreamed of helping animals in Africa. Now she lives the dream — with all the rewards and heartbreak that comes along with it.

Dr. Cheryl Laite spent time with Sudan before his death last year

Dr. Cheryl Laite, originally from Mount Pearl, N.L., sits with Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros in the world. (Submitted)

Sudan was in his mid-40s — that's about 95 in rhinoceros years — when he came to know Dr. Cheryl Laite.

They were surrounded by armed guards, tasked with protecting the world's last male northern white rhinoceros. Laite was tasked with keeping him comfortable in his old age last year, after the prospect of reproduction and saving the species was already over.

"Spending time with him, you get a very different perspective," she told The St. John's Morning Show. "You're sitting and you're looking at this animal. That's life-changing. The reason it got to this point, it's heartbreaking. It's definitely changed me."

Sudan died last spring at the age of 45. Dr. Cheryl Laite helped give him mud baths and administer his arthritis medication. (Submitted)

Sudan died March 19, 2018.

Laite, originally from Mount Pearl, N.L., had left Sudan's side the month before to return to her job as a veterinarian in Ottawa. 

She returned to Africa again this year, living her dream of caring for animals in Kenya — and experiencing all the feelings of reward and sorrow that come with it.

"It is definitely different than the [Newfoundland] wildlife, with the moose and caribou," she said. "But it's always been something in the back of my mind, like a long-term goal that I wanted to pursue."

Poachers a constant threat

She worked as a veterinarian in Newfoundland before moving to Ottawa, where she works at an animal hospital and is a firefighter.

She carves out between six and eight weeks a year to go to Kenya, where she volunteers and takes courses at the OI Pejeta Conservatory about 250 kilometres north of Nairobi.

That's where Sudan was transferred in 2009, as conservationists made a last-ditch effort to breed him and give him a better life. The animals are under constant watch to ward off illegal hunting.

Dr. Cheryl Laite stands with armed security guards at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya. (Submitted)

Rhinoceroses are the target of poachers in Africa, sought after for their horns. It's something that's always troubled Laite, even more so after she began working and learning in Kenya.

Rare animal parts are commonly sold in Asia, where there is a market for illegally-hunted tusks and horns. China hoped to curb the poaching trade by implementing an ivory ban last year.

Having cared for rhinos at the sanctuary, including the last of a species, the frustration is clear in Laite's voice.

"They die in extreme pain and for nothing. For nothing. For a status symbol, or for a false belief that there's some medicinal value in that, and there's not."

A lot of people don't realize what we're losing.- Dr. Cheryl Laite

Laite hopes to continue visiting for six to eight weeks every year. The conservatory is a friendly place, she said, and run by a close-knit family. When she returned this year, she was welcomed with open arms.

"It's a very personal place," she said.

Watch Dr. Laite's emotional message before leaving Sudan for the last time

Poachers cause a safety concern, but the armed guards do their best to keep them at bay on the 90,000-acre reserve.

"They put their lives on the line every day for these animals. A lot of them get killed trying to defend these animals, to save them. Humans are a bigger threat than the animals."

Africa has taught her a lot about her line of work, and she'll bring back a lot of lessons on the importance of conservation.

"A lot of people don't realize what we're losing and I think it's important to increase that awareness."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from The St. John's Morning Show