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Back from the Brink of Extinction – Saving the Northern White Rhinos

by Lara Behrens
6th December 2017 Staff Recommended
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Preparations have kicked off in Kenya and Europe for the long-anticipated procedure that is hoped to help to save the northern white rhinos from the brink of extinction. With only three aging northern white rhino individuals left, this subspecies faces extinction if new representative offspring are not produced. The age of the last two northern white rhino females in existence means veterinarians and reproductive biologists have limited time to carry out the specialist procedures that have been developed specifically for these animals.

Najin and Fatu - The 2 Remaining Northern White Females
Najin and Fatu - The 2 Remaining Northern White Females

NANYUKI, KENYA, TUESDAY, 5 DECEMBER 2017 - On Sunday the 5th November a diverse committee of veterinarians, conservationists and wildlife managers from the Czech Republic, Kenya, UK and South Africa met to discuss the next steps of ground breaking procedures pegged as the last chance to save the northern white rhino from extinction.

There are just three representatives of the subspecies left on the planet, one male and two females, all of which are ageing. They are housed in an in situ special facility at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The animals were moved to Africa from Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic in 2009 in an attempt to get them to breed naturally under African conditions. Although the northern white rhino females showed positive signs of cycling, no confirmed pregnancies occurred. Achieving success in artificial reproduction techniques using surrogate southern white rhinos is now the only way save some of the northern white genes in living animals. This has never been before attempted in rhinos.

The first project of its kind - to save the Northern White Rhino
The first project of its kind - to save the Northern White Rhino

Preparations for this historic procedure have started by retrieving and storing eggs from southern white rhino females in European zoos, and fertilising them in in vitro conditions, before actually retrieving eggs from the last two remaining northern white rhino females in Kenya. The plan is now to isolate the potential southern white rhino female surrogates from any males, ensuring they are ‘empty’ and ready for receiving a northern white rhino embryo in 2018.

The procedure will involve using northern white rhino sperm from several (now deceased) males that is stored in Berlin, Germany. However, the only northern white rhino eggs in the world belong to the two live females at Ol Pejeta - Najin and Fatu - who are 28 and 17 years old respectively. The surgery required to harvest these eggs carries inherent risks, and will have to be conducted in the field. The fate of the northern white rhino subspecies depends on this operation going smoothly.

The fate of the species is at stake
The fate of the species is at stake

That is why, for the past two years, a consortium of experts from Dvůr Králové Zoo, IZW Berlinand Avantea Institute in Cremona, Italy, have been developing a technique known as ovum pick-up (OPU) on captive southern white rhinos, which involves the collection of eggs from females. They have also been developing the in vitro procedures needed to generate a viable embryo from these eggs.

Under supervision of Kenya Wildlife Service, OPU will now be conducted on Najin and Fatu in Kenya in early 2018, and if successful their eggs will be shipped to the Avantea laboratory in Italy. Here, scientists hope to develop an embryo using northern white rhino sperm, which will then be shipped back to Kenya to insert into surrogate southern white rhino females in Ol Pejeta.

Preparations have begun - Kingi being relocated
Preparations have begun - Kingi being relocated

Preparations for the OPU officially started in Ol Pejeta this month. “A southern white rhino male known as Kingi was moved out of the 722-acre enclosure he shares with five southern white females. This move ensures that all surrogates will be ‘empty’ and ready for receiving the embryos in 2018,” says Richard Vigne, Ol Pejeta’s CEO.

Sudan - The last remaining male northern white rhino in existence
Sudan - The last remaining male northern white rhino in existence

The last northern white rhino male, Sudan, has become an internationally recognised ‘bachelor’ after the popular dating app Tinder featured him on their social network to help raise money for this procedure. Now 44, he is too old to mate, and spends his days under 24/7 armed guard and requires frequent veterinary care. “Unfortunately, at his age, it cannot be expected that his health would dramatically improve,” says Jan Stejskal of Dvůr Králové Zoo, who has known Sudan since he was 30 years old.

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