Scientists mull over IVF as rhinos face extinction

Rhino Caregiver Zachary Mutai with one of the northern white rhinos at Ol pejeta Conservancy in Lakipia County. The conservancy hosts the only three northern white rhinos remaining in the world. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard]

Within the 600 acres under the endangered species enclosure at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County are three northern white rhinos in the world, facing imminent extinction.

The white rhino sub-species-one male, Sudan and two females Najin and Fatu are under 24 hour surveillance, however they are not able to breed naturally, a factor that has raised fears of the species being wiped out from the face of the earth.

“There are only three northern white rhinos in the planet. Najin and Fatu are doing well although Sudan is currently not feeling well and we have restricted visitors from his enclosure as he undergoes treatment,” Mr Samuel Mutisya, head of Wildlife at Ol Pejeta conservancy said.

SEE ALSO :Rhino mauls ranger to death

Previously, the northern white rhinos were found in parts of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo but widespread poaching and civil war led to the drastic decline in numbers.

Despite being in a predator-free zone with 24 hour armed guard and top-notch security surveillance, one can feel the loneliness, the cold and disillusion that comes with the face of extinction even as a team of veterinary officers write reports after a visit to Sudan’s enclosure.

Uterine disorder

Horn-imbedded transmitters, watchtowers, fences, drones, guard dogs, and trained armed guards around the clock are some of the techniques employed to bar poachers within the 90,000-acre conservancy.

At 45, Sudan is elderly by rhino living standards. Usually, life span of a rhino in the wild is estimated at between 40 and 50 years. He too, has a low sperm count. He also stays alone and chances of having partners are almost impossible as he enjoys solitude while undergoing treatment.

SEE ALSO :Global uproar as China lifts ban on rhino horns

Najin is 27 and has weak knees meaning she can neither bear the weight of a mounting male nor that of pregnancy while her daughter Fatu is 17 and too, has weak knees and a uterine disorder, a situation that cannot allow for the embryo to be implanted successfully.

Sudan’s illness, according to a rhino caregiver Zachary Mutai, comes with old age. He might never get another chance of spending with the females as he is weak and ‘is often bullied’ by the females.

“Although he still has the male instincts, Sudan is old and for the rhinos males to mount on females, they often fight, which for now Sudan will not be able and will only sustain injuries that will deteriorate his health. He also suffers a low sperm count,” Mr Mutai said.

The species, were in December 2009 transferred to Ol Pejeta conservancy, one of the largest black rhino sanctuaries in East Africa from Czech Republic with hopes that they will reproduce in a natural habitat given the favorable climatic conditions.

In 2014, Suni, one of the northern male white rhinos died of natural causes, leaving behind the three.

SEE ALSO :Kenya does not support re-opening of rhino horn trade

“When Suni died, Sudan was left behind as the only male, however natural reproduction has not been fruitful especially given the conditions of each rhino,” Mr Mutai said.

At the enclosure, Fatu and Najin are in a company of a southern white rhino, one the candidates who will be used by a consortium of scientists across the world who have come together to use In Vitro fertilization (IVF) as the last resort to saving the species from extinction.

The scientists are planning to extract eggs from the two female northern whites and by using advanced reproductive techniques, including stem cell technology and IVF and create embryos that could be carried to term by surrogate rhino mothers.

The procedure however is the world’s first but before that happens, researchers plan to test the procedure on southern white rhinos.

Other candidates too, from the southern white species, have been securely confined in to the endangered species enclosure awaiting the procedure that is expected to draw the global attention.

SEE ALSO :Sasha, Malia Obama conceived by IVF

Although no one has ever successfully used IVF on any rhino species, scientists hope that this will be the only solution to saving the northern white rhino species.

 IVF requires specific conditions to mimic the uterine environment, and is estimated to take a lot of time as well as funding to get the results. Mutai revealed that the process of removing the eggs from Najin and Fatu will kick off in May.

“We expect the process to begin as from May this year and we hope it will be successful,” he said.

The semen from northern white rhinos have long been collected and are being kept in specialised laboratories in Italy.

“The semen have long been collected from other northern white rhinos before they died and the remaining procedure is to extract the eggs from the females and implanted on a surrogate southern white mother who will carry the pregnancy to full term,” Mr Mutai said.

He said a team of specialists will collect the eggs and fly them within 24 hours to be stored in specialised laboratories in Italy.

“It is not an easy task getting eggs from female rhinos, and we may find we simply do not have enough viable eggs to create embryos in the numbers we want. If that turns out to be the case, we will have to take a different approach,” says Prof Cesare Galli, of Bologna University.

He further added that one of the two females at Ol Pejeta is elderly while the other is known to have uterine problems, an issue that could affect the project’s progress.

white rhinorhinoold sudan rhinoNajinivf