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Scientists hope to save near extinct rhino species

Jessie Wingard
September 11, 2019

An international group of scientists is hoping to bring the northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction. With only two females left in the world, they are turning to a sub-species for help.

Najin and Fatu, the only two remaining female northern white rhinos; graze together in their paddock
Image: Getty Images/AFP/T. Karumba

Scientists are hoping to impregnate the closely-related southern white rhino — the most abundant rhino sub-species in the world — using harvested eggs from the last two northern white rhino cows and frozen sperm collected from four rhino bulls before their deaths, an international science consortium said on Wednesday.
Read more: Scientists fertilize eggs from last northern white rhinos

Turning point in assisted reproduction 

Two northern white rhino in-vitro embryos were successfully created at Avantea Laboratories in Cremona, Italy.

"These are early embryos that have a very high potential to develop into a baby. [They] have now been put in liquid nitrogen. We have achieved a new life, a new hope for this species," Thomas Hildebrandt, project head at the Leibnitz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, a consortium partner in the project, told DW.

A southern white rhino is see with a calf
It's hoped a southern white rhino cow can act as a surrogate for the embryosImage: DW/A. Wasike

Researchers from Kenya, Italy, the Czech Republic, and Germany are still fine-tuning the implantation procedure before the embryos are transferred into a surrogate mother, but are hopeful a northern white rhino calf can be born via surrogacy within the next three years.

Mother's bond

The remaining two cows, mother Najin and daughter Fatu, live in a Kenyan sanctuary. The last bull, Fatu's father, Sudan, died in March, 2018.

A photo showing the last surviving male northern white rhino named 'Sudan' shortly before his death in 2018
Sudan, the last remaining northern white rhino, died in 2018Image: Reuters/T. Mukoya

Genetic reasons mean neither cow can breed.

While Najin and Fatu might not be able to carry the baby, the offspring would still be reliant on them "to pass on their knowledge of how a northern white rhino behaves with their offspring," Hildebrandt added.