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Humankind has pushed the northern white rhinoceros to the brink of extinction. Critically endangered, only two individual females are currently alive. In nature, this would be the end. The species would become a thing of the past, lost to time and human greed for rhino horns. However, modern science might just reverse the dismal course of events. Researchers have recently succeeded in using invitro fertilization (IVF) to implant a viable rhinoceros embryo in a closely related southern white rhino mother, simultaneously planting a seed of hope that this modern reproductive technology will save their northern brethren.
The northern white rhino was once abundant in northern Africa. However, the massive animals were hunted and poached for their keratin horns, which are sold on the black market. Recent efforts have included preemptively and painlessly removing the horns of rhinos to make them less attractive targets. However, for the northern white rhino it was largely too late. Since 2009, the only living members of the species have lived in captivity mimicking their natural environment at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. At that time there were four, two male and two female. But both males perished in 2014 and 2018 respectively.
That leaves only the females: Najin and Fatu. They are mother and daughter. With no males left, the future of the species now rests with 30 carefully preserved embryos already created and which are stored frozen in Europe. Impregnating rhinos is tricky due to the species’ immense size, so it was necessary to practice the skills. Therefore, researchers used IVF on southern white rhinos, who are much less endangered. Combining eggs and sperm from captive rhinos, they chose surrogate mothers. On the 13th try, the pregnancy stuck with a rhino named Curra, proving the technique can result in a viable, healthy embryo. Sadly, while the embryo was still developing, Curra was poisoned by Clostridia bacteria, which was brought up naturally by intense rain.
Despite this sad ending, the rhino IVF worked. Now it can be attempted with the northern white rhino embryos, the genetic children of Fatu and the deceased males. However, Najin and Fatu are unable to carry the baby rhino due to their health. Another southern white rhino surrogate will be selected. Scientists feel confident that their biology is similar enough to avoid issues. But this breeding plan must be supplemented by new genetics if it is to create a true new start for the species. Researchers plan to attempt creating sperm and egg cells from stem cells, so that they can promote genetic diversity. Samuel Mutisya, Ol Pejeta's head of research and species conservation, noted his organization was “committed to do all that is humanly possible to nurture, protect and recover the species.”
There are only two northern white rhino females left, so saving the species will take innovation and modern technology.
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