The world is about to lose the last of its three northern white rhino if nothing is done to save them from extinction.
While, the three are kept in a highly secured part of the 90,000-acre Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County, Kenya, it is unfortunate that they cannot reproduce naturally despite the favorable environment.
The only option now is to take advantage of science and technology and hope that the breed is conserved.
According to Ol Pejeta, owned by Flora and Fauna International, “Unless a technique for rhino IVF or stem cell technology can be funded, developed, tested and implemented, the Northern White rhino will become extinct.”
Efforts to encourage natural fertilization have failed
In 2009, four rhinos were moved from Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic in hope that more natural conditions would encourage mating. Unfortunately, one male Northern White rhino died on Ol Pejeta. Many fruitless years passed, and the management at the conservancy decided to explore alternatives.
In 2014, they introduced a male Southern White rhino to the two female Northern Whites. It was hoped that even though the offspring would be hybrid, it would conserve some of the northern white genes. This was, however, unsuccessful. Tests later revealed that neither of the females is capable of natural reproduction.
The rhinos’ failure to reproduce naturally resulted in an international scientific symposium in Austria, where it was resolved that research should be conducted and the findings tabled at a follow-up meeting early next year.
To save the species from extinction, the international symposium agreed that in vitro fertilization (IVF) would be the last possible solution. The last of the male mammals has low sperm count and weak hind legs, meaning it is in no position to mate.
According to some visiting Czech veterinary officers, in this case, only IVF could save the mammals.
“Artificial reproduction via in vitro fertilization techniques and stem cell technology, though costly and complicated procedures never attempted on rhinos before, is the only hope,” they said.
To make the project a success, a Japanese stem cell scientist Katsuhiko Hayashi said the plan would see natural gametes extracted from the skin of the three rhinos fertilized via IVF and introduced into surrogate mothers (Southern White rhino) for possible siring of fertile female Northern White rhino. If it works, it will be world’s first.
Dr Hayashi is famed for successful propagation of mice out of simple skin cells that were later born and grew into fertile mice that could naturally reproduce.
“The process will require the latest findings in stem cell research to be adjusted and applied to rhinos and will be the first use of the technology in wildlife conservation,” Ol Pejeta said in a statement.
Already, Ol Pejeta Chief Operating Officer Robert Breare and Dvur Kralove Zoo Director for International Projects Jan Stejskal have registered a funds appeal on GoFundMe, which has so far raised $22,522 from 440 people.
The looming extinction is a desperate moment for scientists who seek to save the Northern White rhino using science and technology. If the method works, it could provide a solution to propagate many other animals that are also facing extinction.
Image credit: Sun Ruibo/Xinhua Press/Corbis