Scientists create embryo they hope will save nearly extinct rhino ‘before it’s too late’

‘It’s amazing that we can reverse the tragic loss of this subspecies through science,’ Kenyan minister says

Jon Sharman
Wednesday 15 January 2020 17:48
New embryo made of nearly extinct rhino species

Scientists have created a new embryo they hope will contribute to a return of the near-extinct northern white rhino.

The artificially made embryo is just the third viable example. All three were created in vitro by combining frozen sperm taken from male rhinos before they died with eggs harvested from one of the two remaining northern whites in the world, which are both female.

Sudan, the last known male of his subspecies, died in 2018 aged 45.

Researchers now plan to implant the three embryos they have created into surrogate southern white rhino females, a species which is more numerous.

“It’s amazing to see that we will be able to reverse the tragic loss of this subspecies through science,” said Kenya‘s wildlife minister, Najib Balala, in a statement released by the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservationists from Kenya, the Czech Republic, Germany and Italy.

The three embryos were made from eggs taken from Fatu, Sudan’s granddaughter. Fatu lives at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta conservancy with her mother, Najin – under 24-hour armed guard.

“Now the team will make every effort to achieve the same result for the 30-year-old Najin before it is too late for her,” said Thomas Hildebrandt with the Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research in Germany.

Scientists created the first two embryos last autumn. They hope to build a herd of five northern white rhinos that could eventually be returned to the wild, a process likely to take decades.

Kenya, which was home to as many as 20,000 rhinos in the 1970s, now has about 650 mostly black rhinos.

The northern white subspecies was once found in a number of countries in eastern and central Africa. Conservationists estimate that there are about 18,000 of its southern white cousins left in the world, and 5,000 black rhinos.

Southern whites have already made their own remarkable comeback, thanks to the efforts of rangers dedicated to protecting them.

In 1897 there were only about 50 left on the planet. The number rose past 400 in the 1950s and in the mid-1960s the subspecies was upgraded from critically endangered status.

Rhinos are hunted for their horns, which are used as a carving medium and in traditional Chinese remedies, without any evidence for their effectiveness.

Additional reporting by agencies

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