The last male Northern White Rhino, Sudan, died in 2018 leaving behind only two females in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Sudan was named after the country he was born. The remaining female Northern White Rhinos, the 30-year-old Najin and her 19-year-old daughter Fatu, were born and initially housed at the Dvur Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic. They, however, had to be taken to Kenya for more suitable climatic conditions, natural habitat and dietary conditions. This was an attempt to create more favorable breeding conditions for them.
Saving the Northern White Rhinos from extinction seemed unachievable especially after the death of Sudan. Najin and Fatu cannot carry calves. Fatu has degenerative lesions in her uterus while Najin has weak hind legs. The two now live under full-time armed protection.
Being on the verge of extinction, the existence of more creatures of the same kind solely lies in the hands of scientists. An international consortium of scientists and conservationists attempted to produce the embryos of the Northern White Rhinos in a bid to save them from extinction. The consortium comprises veterinarians and conservationists from Kenya, Germany and the Czech Republic working at the Avantea Biotech Laboratory in Cremona, Italy.
In August 2019, the team extracted eggs from Najin and Fatu. They achieved this through a highly delicate process that involved anesthetizing the rhinos for around two hours. They used techniques that had undergone research and development for years.
The team harvested five immature egg cells from each of the remaining Northern White Rhinos. After incubation, seven of them matured and were ready for fertilization. The scientists fertilized the eggs using frozen sperms from deceased males Suni and Saut at the Avantea Biotech Laboratory. However, out of the seven fertilized eggs, only two of Fatu’s eggs, fertilized by Suni’s frozen sperms, developed into viable embryos.
The scientists have stored them in liquid nitrogen. They now have plans of transferring the embryos into a surrogate mother, a Southern White Rhino.
Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany spoke about the process.
“Today we achieved an important milestone on a rocky road which allows us to plan the future steps in the rescue program of the northern white rhino.”
The Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research forms part of the international consortium of scientists and conservationists involved in the planning and development of the procedure for years. Their aim is to create a herd of a minimum of five animals that can be taken back to their natural habitat in Africa. Achieving this could take several decades.
The director of communication at the Dvur Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, Jan Stejskal, spoke of their progress.
“Five years ago it seemed like the production of a northern white rhino embryo was an almost unachievable goal — and today we have them. This fantastic achievement of the whole team allows us to be optimistic over our next steps.”