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Escaping Extinction: New Hope for Northern White Rhinos

Updated: Aug 26, 2020

Kate Byng-Hall reports on the scientists trying to save the Northern White Rhino from extinction from the lab.

Photo by elCarito

Scientists in Italy are attempting to revive the northern white rhino population with embryos fertilised in a lab thousands of miles away from the last of the species.

After decades of intensive poaching, only two female northern white rhinos are left, currently living in a fenced enclosure in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Central Kenya, watched over by 24/7 armed guards. With neither of the females able to carry offspring, the species is in dire straits. The heat is on to fix the damage poachers have done before it’s too late.

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The Attack on the Rhino 

White Rhinos are the second largest land animal after the elephant, weighing around 2000kg on average. They live in central and southern Africa on grasslands and savannas, making them particularly vulnerable to the poachers who consistently target them.

Poachers as so desirous to attack white rhinos, especially the northern variety, for their horns. Ground rhino horn has been a sought-after ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine for over 2000 years, believed to effectively treat fevers, rheumatism, and gout. More recently, it has been in-demand in Vietnam as a hangover remedy.

The international trade of rhino horns has been banned under the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Fauna and Flora) since 1977, but it’s still alive and well as criminal gangs provide poachers with sophisticated tech to attack the creatures, and they’re often armed with guns, making it dangerous for anti-poaching teams to confront them.

Poachers, many of whom rely on the trade to prevent their families from living in poverty, usually tranquilise the rhinos, then saw off their horns before leaving them to wake up and bleed to death slowly in terrible pain. All this to get horns for medicines which most-likely are entirely ineffectual.  

“There are five species of rhinoceros and, with the exception of one subspecies of African White rhino, all are in danger of being hunted to extinction for their horns. […] It is heart-breaking to realise that the world’s rhinos are being eliminated from the face of the earth in the name of medications that probably don’t work.”Richard Ellis, in 2005 EAZA Rhino Campaign’s Info Pack

Possessing a horn is also a symbol of status and wealth in many countries. As the population size of the northern white rhino rapidly decreased, with no live births for the past two decades, demand for the horns increased, as did the prices buyers were willing to spend to own such exclusive items. It is toxic materialism which has led this species to near-extinction.

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The Rescue Plan 

In recent years, scientists and conservationists have been desperately trying to save the northern white rhino before it’s lost forever.  

A few years ago, the four surviving rhinos were moved from their zoo in the Czech Republic to their natural habitat in Kenya. Experts hoped this would improve their chances of mating, but both males died soon after, leaving just two females – Najin and Fatu.

Before they passed away, sperm samples from both males were collected with the view of performing IVF with Najin and Fatu’s eggs.  he process of retrieving them is very complex because rhinos’ ovaries are 1.5m inside their bodies and very close to a blood vessel the width of a child’s arm which would be fatal if punctured.  In 2019, Dr Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) managed to complete the tricky procedure and collected 19 eggs from the two females.  

They were rushed to a lab in Italy where expert Professor Galli used an electric charge to kickstart the IVF process with the males’ sperm. He succeeded in fertilising three embryos from the samples.

Both females have health complications which render them infertile, so the hope now is that southern white rhinos could act as surrogates for the northern embryos. Four potential candidates have been moved to an enclosure next to Najin and Fatu, and it’s now a waiting game to see if any of them seem ready to accept the embryos.

This may be the last chance this species has of survival. Many argue that, as the southern white rhino is not yet endangered, with around 20,000 of the species still alive, efforts and investment should be focused on them or other struggling animals to prevent future threats rather than trying to revive a species which is practically already eradicated.

Either way, it has to be admired that science offers us the chance to help species which human selfishness and greed have so cruelly attacked.

You may also like: Going, Going, Gone? Giraffes Under Threat

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