Charge of the test-tube rhino

'GETTING a male rhino to donate sperm would be very difficult,' says Alan Trounson, in what has to be one of the understatements of the year. 'Trying to electro-ejaculate sperm from an anaesthetised rhino isn't something one would want to attempt.'

Despite the practical difficulties, Dr Trounson and scientists at a New South Wales zoo are pressing ahead with an attempt to produce 'test-tube' rhinos, which they hope will help save the endangered African black rhinoceros from extinction.

According to Dr Trounson, the female of the species is more nicely behaved than the male. 'It will be a matter of getting to know them, and getting them used to the process of taking eggs from them.'

The International Rhinoceros Foundation project is under way at the Western Plains Zoo, near Dubbo, 200 miles north-west of Sydney.

Given the difficulty of the male rhino's temperament, Dr Trounson, a leader of the human in vitro fertilisation programme at Monash University, Melbourne, believes that the most likely route to building a bank of rhinoceros embryos will be to take eggs from living females and inject them with sperm extracted from newly deceased males.

The team is awaiting delivery of the frozen testes of a black rhinoceros that died in San Francisco in January.

The zoo obtained its seven females from Zimbabwe several years ago with a view to breeding the species outside Africa, where it is under threat of extinction from poaching. Twenty years ago, Africa had about 65,000 black rhinoceroses; today it has around 2,000. Most are killed for their horns, which fetch high prices as ingredients in oriental medicine.

Dr Trounson is confident of applying the test-tube technique to other endangered species, including fresh-water dolphins in China and some Australian marsupials.

'By the time the poachers have killed all the rhinos in Africa,' he says, 'I hope we will have built up a reserve and can start putting them back.'

In the meantime, all Dr Trounson has to do is persuade the rhinos to co-operate.