Scientists make progress in rescuing endangered northern white rhinos

A northern white female rhinoceros named Najin at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2015

A northern white female rhinoceros named Najin at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2015

A team led by veterinarian Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin has succeeded in creating living embryos in the laboratory from frozen sperm of the northern white rhinoceros and egg cells from the southern white rhinoceros.

Researchers from Italy say they have created the first-ever hybrid rhino embryo produced outside the womb, following the death of the last male rhino of the species.

By creating embryo stem cell lines from southern white rhinos, scientists demonstrated what Roth calls "proof of concept", meaning that if you could achieve this outcome with a southern white rhino, you could ostensibly achieve a similar outcome in the northern white rhino. The first rhino embryos which have been created in a test tube can help save the rhinos by high-tech assisted reproduction.

FULLY NWR. The researchers also hope to extract eggs from the two living NWRs to create embryos that are 100 percent NWR.

It was the eggs that were more hard to collect. Professor Renfree says the key to the project was new technology developed by Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, who's based at the Leibniz-Institut in Berlin, that for the first time allowed collection of eggs from the ovaries of rhinoceroses. Some experts have criticised the effort however, saying it comes too late. A hybrid calf ensures some genetic continuity for the northern white rhino even after its extinction.

One of the team said he hoped a baby that's fully northern white rhino would be born "within three years".

The global team believes that assisted reproduction technologies used for other large mammals, including horses and cows, could be transferred to the surviving northern white rhinos as a way of boosting their reproductive capacity. These would then be implanted in southern surrogates, as the remaining northern females are unable to carry embryos themselves. "But I am afraid it is very much Nero fiddling after Rome is burning with respect to (northern) white rhino".

After the last known male white rhino died in March, only two females, named Najin and Fatu, are left on the planet.

Unless the IVF techniques work out, these species are doomed to die.

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Among horses, assisted reproduction technologies have resulted in pregnancy 50% of the time, according to Galli.

The southern white rhinoceros is a subspecies of the white rhino and its population is now rated as "near threatened" by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, with about 21,000 individuals remaining.

Hildebrandt insisted the effort is worthwhile. "It was slaughtered by criminals which went for the horn because the horn costs more than gold".

Northern white rhinos were particularly vulnerable because of conflicts that swept their central African range.

The rhino's disappearance has left a void in the region's ecosystem that could have significant impacts in the future, Hildebrandt said.

"It caused a disbalance in the ecosystem. and we have the tools in our hands to correct that".

However, latest scientific advances in stem cell research brought Dr Hildebrandt and his global team new hope in resurrecting the species. "Already, a half of the hybrid embryo genetic information comes from the NWR", comments Jan Stejskal, Director of International Projects at the Safari Park Dvur Kralove in the Czech Republic.

The researchers have sought permission to harvest eggs from Najin and Fatu in Kenya, hopefully before the end of the year. Pictured, Fatu, one of the only two remaining female northern white rhino, runs in her paddock on March 20, 2018 at the ol-Pejeta conservancy in Nanyuki, north of capital Nairobi.

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