Scientists Just Took a Big Step In the Race to Save the Northern White Rhino

The monitor shows the inseminating of eggs from the last two remaining female of northern white rhinos with frozen sperm at the Avantea laboratory in Cremona, Italy, on August 25, 2019.
Photo: AP

Thanks to groundbreaking science, conservationists could save the critically endangered northern white rhino. Only two animals of this species remain—Najin and Fatu, both of which are female—and an international team of scientists have come together to harvest 10 eggs from the hopeful rhino mamas in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. And now scientists have successfully inseminated seven of the 10 eggs already, which means our first artificially bred northern white rhino may be in the foreseeable future.

The northern white rhino has faced severe threats from poachers looking to saw off their horns and sell them on the black market. The last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died last year, dealing a potentially fatal blow to the entire species. Scientists, however, have been hard at work to make sure that doesn’t happen.

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The plan to save the northern white rhino by fertilizing eggs and using tissue samples has been in works for some years now. The team began by doing a trial with southern white rhinos, of which there are still some 19,000 in the world. Harvesting eggs, after all, isn’t a walk in the park. The procedure involved putting the animals under anesthesia and using a probe guided by ultrasound to gather the eggs. Najin and Fatu are unable to carry a pregnancy due to health reasons, but their eggs fertilized using frozen male northern white rhino sperm will eventually find a home in a southern white rhino surrogate mother.

This has never been done before on a northern white rhino, so success is not guaranteed. So far, the northern white rhino eggs seem to be doing better than the eggs from the southern white rhino trial. That’s a good sign, but the team has got to wait and see now if an embryo develops and if it grows successfully into a fetus once planted inside a surrogate.

“This is a historic day for the future of the northern white rhino and potentially many other endangered species,” Simon Jones, the CEO of Helping Rhinos, wrote in an email to Earther. “If the next stages of creating a northern white rhino embryo are successful, the possibility of using the learnings from this assisted reproduction techniques can be used to support population growth of other critically endangered species, including the Sumatran and Javan rhino.”

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There are the two stars of the show!
Photo: AP

The northern white rhino isn’t alone in its troubles and the process could change the game for a number of other endangered rhinos like the Sumatran and Javan rhinos in Indonesia that Jones mentioned. These rhinos don’t live in the open savannah of African nations, they remain hidden in the tropical island jungles. Still, poachers manage to find them to kill for their horns here, too.

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Efforts to save these species have been ramping up in recent years. And that’s thanks to a rise in technology and science that’s making it possible. Fingers crossed that we get some northern white rhino babies soon.

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About the author

Yessenia Funes

I mostly write about how environmental policy and climate change intersect with race and class though I occasionally write about animals, science, and art, too. We all need an escape, right?

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