White rhino species could be saved through IVF

Scientists make breakthrough in the battle to protect world’s most endangered mammal

'Sudan' the world's last male northern white rhino has died, leaving only two females of the subspecies alive in the world. Video: Reuters


Scientists have created hybrid embryos in the laboratory from the sperm of near-extinct northern white rhinoceroses, hoping they can ultimately help save the species.

The northern white rhino is the world’s most endangered mammal, and its only two living members are a mother and daughter, living in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Scientists did, however, manage to collect about 300ml of semen from the last four bull rhinos, which they say is a large quantity, albeit too low-quality for insemination.

They used some of this to fertilise eggs in vitro from the closest relative – the southern white rhino – creating the hybrid embryos.

They now plan to use the same techniques to create an embryo of a “pure” northern white rhino with eggs harvested from the two females. This could then be implanted into a surrogate to gestate.

“Within three years we hope to have the first [northern white] rhino calf born,” said Thomas Hildebrandt of Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, who co-led the work. The findings were published in the journal Nature Communications on Wednesday.

Cesare Galli of the Italian animal assisted reproduction firm Avantea, who worked with Hildebrandt, said there had originally been strong opposition from some conservationists to “interfering in nature” by using IVF or other lab techniques to save the northern white rhino.

“Many people working in the conservation area are very against using biotechnology,” he said.

Hildebrandt argued that using biotechnology was not unnatural, and would simply correct a change in the ecosystem created by the human hunting of rhinos.

“The northern white rhino did not fail evolution, it failed because it was not bullet-proof. It was slaughtered,” he said.

“It caused a disbalance in the ecosystem . . . and we have the tools in our hands to correct that.” – Reuters