Scientists have successfully harvested ova from the world’s remaining two female northern white rhinos.
The procedure that had never been attempted on the species was done Thursday at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County, Kenya.
“Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch,” says Prof Thomas Hildebrandt from the German research institute Leibniz-IZW.
The future of the rhinos – Najin and Fatu – who are staring at extinction now rests on pioneering artificial reproduction techniques.
“We were able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes - five from Najin and five from Fatu - showing that both females can still provide eggs and thus help to save these magnificent creatures,” Prof Hildebrandt added.
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Oocytes are immature egg cells.
“The number of harvested oocytes is a wonderful success and proof that the unique cooperation between scientists, experts in zoos and conservationists in the field can lead to hopeful prospects even for the animals that are imminently facing extinction,” noted Jan Stejskal from Dv?r Králové Zoo, Czech Republic, where the two rhinos were born.
The scientists will now artificially fertilise the eggs and implant the embryo as neither Najin nor Fatu can carry a pregnancy.
“The eggs will now be artificially inseminated with frozen sperm from a northern white rhino bull, and in the near future the embryo will be transferred to a southern white rhino surrogate mother,” the conservancy said.
Najin, Fatu and two male northern white rhinos were translocated from the Czech Republic to Kenya in December 2009.
At the time, scientist believed breeding would be stimulated by the rhinos being closer to their natural environment.
“We came to the conclusion after a health assessment in 2014 that, owing to various health issues, neither Najin or Fatu can carry a pregnancy,” the scientists said.
The two males, named Suni and Sudan, died of natural causes in 2014 and 2018 respectively. Their sperms were, however, preserved to assist in reproduction.
The project to save the rhino species is a collaboration among the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) Berlin, Avantea, Dv?r Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
“The concerted efforts to save the last northern white rhinos should guide the resolutions the world makes at the ongoing CITES meeting in Geneva.
The assisted reproductive technique should galvanize the world’s attention to the plight of all rhinos and make us avoid decisions that undermine law enforcement and fuel demand for the rhino horn,” said Tourism and Wildlife CS Najib Balala.