Biological researchers have successfully created a third northern white rhino embryo through artificial measures in a global collaborative attempt to save the nearly extinct species.
In recent months, scientists have diligently worked to artificially extract and inseminate eggs from the last two remaining females, mother-daughter duo Najin and Fatu, both of whom live in Kenya and are too old to carry their own offspring. In August, the team conducted the first “ovum pickup” to harvest the eggs. They later fertilized seven eggs using frozen sperm from deceased males, resulting in two viable embryos. The insemination procedure was again repeated on December 17.
“Our repeated success in generating a third embryo from Fatu demonstrates that the BioRescue program is on the right track. Now, the team will make every effort to achieve the same result for the 30-year-old Najin before it is too late for her. We are strongly committed to our plan to transfer a northern white embryo into a surrogate mother in 2020 to ensure the survival of the northern white rhino,” said Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the Department of Reproduction Management, Leibniz-IZW, in a statement.
The third embryo now joins the other two in liquid nitrogen storage while it awaits a surrogate mother. In June, a team of international scientists proved surrogacy to be a viable option after successfully transferring the first test-tube rhino embryo into a southern white rhinoceros, a closely related subspecies that may be capable of carrying a northern white rhino embryo to term. The goal is to eventually create a herd of at least five northern white individuals to return to their natural habitat – a feat that could take decades.
“We have taken yet another small step along the road of saving the northern white rhino from extinction. We have a long way to go and success is far from assured, but Kenya continues to play her part at the center of a multi-national collaboration to save this species. Let us hope for news of a successful northern white pregnancy in the not too distant future,” said Brig (Rtd) John Waweru, Kenya Wildlife Service Director-General.
The breeding project is a collaborative effort of scientists from the Kenya Wildlife Service, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Avantea Laboratory, and Dvůr Králové Zoo. Researchers say preparations for the next phase are currently underway.