Can the scientists be able to save the northern white rhino from extinction? First of all, in vitro fertilization utilizing the eggs of the only two surviving females, has been accomplished. Recently, specialists have ended up a new milestone, but the risks, adversities, and challenges ahead are bound to be many.

Baby rhino surrounded by birds
Photo by Zoë Reeve / Unsplash

Extinction is silent, like sand sliding through an hourglass; we hardly ever pay attention to it until it’s too late and has lost what will never return. If someone told us that the only living specimens of a mammal were two females, we would probably think that species is doomed. How can it survive if it has exhausted the natural possibility of reproducing itself?

The last surviving females

This isn’t a mere hypothesis. As soon as the last male northern white rhino, named Sudan, died of old age, at 45, in March last year, the species survives with only two females, Fatu and Najin. They now both live in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and are under 24-hour observation to keep away from the risk of being killed by poachers.

Nevertheless, researchers may have looked for a way to overturn the hourglass and bring these mammals, a subspecies of the white rhino, back from extinction. An international consortium of researchers called BioRescue, directed by Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in the German capital Berlin, has shed a lot of light on how to save the northern white rhino from extinction by turning to advanced reproductive technologies.

Saving northern white rhinos from extinction

In 2014, scientists claimed that Fatu and Najin were liable to be unfit for birthing: one has problems in the ligaments of her hind legs, creating pregnancy risky, and the other is probably infertile due to cysts and uterine lesions. To address this issue, the embryos will be implanted in surrogate mothers of the southern white rhino species, of which there are many more specimens – between 17,212 and 18,915 in the wild.

Oxpeckers and a starling on a white rhino in Kenya.
Photo by David Clode / Unsplash

On 22 August this year, the oocytes were successfully retrieved from anesthetized Fatu and Najin and, throughout the night, airlifted to Avantea in Cremona for insemination. Removing their eggs was a tricky process – a procedure that has never been carried on in northern white rhinos before – but finally, the team counted ten viable oocytes, five from each rhino. At Galli’s lab in Cremona, the team waited about ten to twelve days for the fertilized eggs to grow into embryos.

Cesare Galli, founder, and director of Avantea, and embryologist famous for cloning a horse for the first time, said that they had ten oocytes and the percentage of potential embryos was about 20 percent, so two embryos was a good average. It was the first time they tried that procedure with that species so there was also an unknown factor of timing and protocol to consider.