A rare species of rhinos has hopefully been saved from near-extinction through IVF. Two embryos have been created through the procedure from fresh eggs collected from the last remaining northern white female rhinos in existence and frozen sperm from dead males. The next step will be for the embryos to be transferred to a southern white rhino. Until then, ten embryos will be stored in liquid nitrogen at Avantea Laboratories in Cremona, Italy, until a specialist team is ready to transfer them to the surrogate mother.
Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the BioRescue project at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, described the procedure as “an important milestone on a rocky road”, adding, “It's a little bit like rocket science because there is no example we can follow because we are the first in this field — we developed everything from scratch.”
In decline for a number of decades due to widespread poaching, the northern white rhino is the most endangered mammal on the planet. The last remaining male died in March 2018. The two last remaining females, Najin and Fatu, live on a wildlife reserve in Kenya under 24-hour armed guard.
About 20,000 or so southern white rhinos still exist in Africa and the females will be used as surrogate mothers in a bid to save their northern cousins. The ultimate aim is to create a herd of up to 15 rhinos that would then be returned to their natural habitat. Scientists hope the first northern white rhino born from an IVF embryo will be taking its first steps within the next three years.
ABOVE Najin grazing in the early morning hours
PHOTO Justin Mott | More of Justin's photographs of the rhinos and their keepers