In a bid to save the species, scientists from the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya have successfully harvested 10 eggs from the last two remaining northern white rhinos. Named Fatu and Najin, both females are unable to bear offspring. The 10 eggs (8 from Fatu and 2 from Najin) will be fertilized with sperm previously taken from a bull rhino and embryos will be implanted into a southern white rhino, whose pregnancy lasts 16 to 18 months.
Northern white rhinos are critically endangered, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Desired for their horns for various traditional medicine, these animals have experienced a rapid decline over the past 50 years. Saving the species is a colossal task due to their drastically low numbers and no living bull, the last of which died in March 2018, so conservationists have taken to saving DNA and sperm for eventual implantation.
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy has been working tirelessly to protect the last northern white rhinos from poaching, helped along by volunteers and tourism to maintain endangered animals. Despite their efforts, the northern white rhino is extinct in the wild. Fatu and Najin are now guarded around the clock by armed personnel as scientists continue their efforts to increase species numbers through assisted reproduction.
This is not the first time the two rhinos have provided eggs for fertilization. In August 2019, 10 eggs were also taken from the pair and fertilized in vitro with northern white rhino bull sperm in an attempt to create embryos. Three viable embryos (two in September, then another in December) were produced as a result and remain in storage until they can be implanted.
The goal of white rhino conservationists is to produce a herd of five northern white rhinos to be released into the wild to hopefully repopulate and restore the species to a sustainable size. Najin, the mother of Fatu, is now 31 and almost too old to provide viable eggs for insemination, so ongoing production of viable embryos is critical.
“On the one hand Ol Pejeta is saddened that we are now down to the last two northern white rhinos on the planet, a testament to the profligate way the human race continues to interact with the natural world around us,” said conservancy managing director Richard Vigne in 2019. “However, we are also immensely proud to be part of the groundbreaking work which is now being deployed to rescue this species. We hope it signals the start of an era where humans finally start to understand that proper stewardship of the environment is not a luxury but a necessity.”