Search on for a surrogate mother to carry Northern White Rhino embryos Embryos boost bid to save rare rhino

Dr. Susanne Holtze from Leibniz-IZW (left), Prof. Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt from Leibniz-IZW (middle) and Prof. Cesare Galli (right) searching for oozetes.The procedure took place at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia on August 22, 2019. Ami Vitale

Plans to transfer three northern white rhino embryos to surrogate mothers at a conservancy in Laikipia are underway.

The embryos were incubated in laboratories in Italy.

The logistics involved in moving them are being handled by the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) and Laikipia-based Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Both KWS and Ol Pejeta said in a joint statement yesterday that the embryos were successfully fertilised from eggs harvested from the remaining two northern white rhinos.

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The sperm used to fertilise them were extracted from northern white rhino males that died. They had been stored in laboratories.

The statement also said the surrogate mothers will be selected from a pool of southern white rhinos who will carry the embryos to term.

“The plan is to select a group of southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Females from that group will serve as surrogate mothers for the northern white rhino embryos," the statement read.

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Efforts to save the northern white rhino have been spearheaded by a team of both local and international researchers and conservationists.

Egg collection

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The current embryo procedure has not been attempted before.

Apart from KWS and Ol Pejeta, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), Avantea and Dv?r Králové Zoo are other organisations that were involved in the egg collection and embryo creation procedure.

The entire process is part of a new research method dubbed "biorescue" which seeks to advance assisted reproduction techniques to save the subspecies.

The scientists undertaking the procedure have expressed confidence that it will work. 

Jan Stejskal, the director of international projects at Dv?r Králové Zoo said yesterday's collaborations were crucial in achieving their success.

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“We don’t know how many embryos we will need to birth a new northern white rhino calf," said Mr Stejskal.

"That is why every embryo is important. A long-term co-operation between scientists, experts and conservationists is important, too."

New frontiers

Cesare Galli, a director at Avantea, noted that time was key in undertaking the procedure. This is because the older female rhinos get, the harder it is to extract eggs from them.

KWS Director General John Waweru said the commitment the researchers had shown in the procedure had pushed science to new frontiers. 

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“The rescue mission is a strong testament to what can be achieved when humanity is determined," he said.

"We remain upbeat that efforts to save the northern white rhino from extinction will succeed.”

Ol Pejeta Conservancy Managing Director Richar Vigne said the steps towards saving the northern white rhino had placed Kenya on the global conservation map.

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KWSOl Pejeta ConservancyWhite RhinoBiorescue