World’s First Rhino Embryo Transfer: Northern Whites’ Salvation

The northern white rhino is one of the most endangered animals on the planet, with only two females left in existence. But a new scientific advancement could give hope for the survival of this majestic species.

IVF breakthrough

An international team of researchers from BioRescue, a consortium that aims to halt extinctions, has performed the first successful embryo transfers in white rhinos, using a technique called in vitro fertilization (IVF). This involves creating an embryo in a lab from an egg and a sperm, and then implanting it into a surrogate mother.

The procedure was carried out with southern white rhinos, a closely related sub-species of northern whites that has a population of thousands. The researchers transferred two southern white rhino embryos into surrogates at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, resulting in a successful pregnancy.

This was the first time that IVF had been used in rhinos, and it proved that the technique can work. “To achieve the first successful embryo transfer in a rhino is a huge step,” said Susanne Holtze, a scientist at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, which is part of BioRescue.

Saving the northern white rhino

The next step is to repeat this with northern white embryos, which have been created using sperm from two now-dead males and eggs from Fatu, one of the two remaining females. The other female, Najin, is Fatu’s mother and they are both infertile.

The northern white embryos will be carried by southern white rhino surrogates in Kenya, and the researchers hope to achieve the first implantation by May or June this year. If successful, this could lead to the birth of the first northern white rhino calf in decades.

The northern white rhino was once widespread across central Africa, but illegal poaching for their horns decimated their population. The last male, Sudan, died in 2018, leaving only Najin and Fatu as the sole survivors of their species.

The BioRescue project aims to use cutting-edge fertility science to bring them back from the brink of extinction. “But now I think with this achievement, we are very confident that we will be able to create northern white rhinos in the same manner and that we will be able to save the species,” said Holtze.

Challenges and hopes

The IVF technique is not without challenges and risks. It took 13 attempts to achieve the first viable pregnancy using southern white rhinos. The surrogate mother died after contracting a rare bacterial infection when the foetus was 70 days old. The process of collecting eggs and implanting embryos is also complex and invasive for the animals.

But the researchers are optimistic that they can overcome these obstacles and achieve their goal of restoring a viable population of northern white rhinos. They have already created four northern white embryos and plan to create more. They also hope to use stem cell technology to generate more genetic diversity for the species.

The IVF pregnancy is a milestone for conservation and a testament to the dedication and innovation of the scientists and conservationists involved. It also offers a glimpse of hope for other endangered species that could benefit from similar techniques.

The northern white rhino is not lost yet. With science and perseverance, it may have a chance to survive.

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