Scientists announce breakthrough in bid to save northern while rhino

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A game ranger looks after the two remaining female northern white rhinos at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County, March 20, 2018. FILE PHOTO | NMG

Scientists in Europe have announced a major breakthrough in the race to save the northern white rhino from extinction.

Researchers from Italy say they have created the first-ever hybrid rhino embryo produced outside the womb, following the death of the last male rhino of the species.

It will then be planted into surrogate mothers, who are under heavy guard at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County, the researchers noted in a statement.

The embryo was made using sperms harvested from Sudan, the last surviving northern male white rhino that died in March.

According to Ol Pejeta, the embryo has a strong chance of surviving to term and thus producing other northern white rhinos.

“In the meantime, we will carry on taking the best possible care of Fatu and Najin and the herd of southern whites specifically selected to one day, hopefully, become surrogates for northern white rhinos,” Ol Pejeta said in a statement.

Najin and her daughter Fatu are the only remaining female northern white rhinos, who are confined at the conservancy.

First-ever embryo

This is the first-ever reported generation of a pre-implantation embryos of rhinos known as blastocysts in a test tube.

The delicate scientific process has never been tried before.

“An international team of scientists has now successfully created hybrid embryos from Southern White Rhino (SWR) eggs and Northern White Rhino sperm using assisted reproduction techniques (ART),” the researchers from Avantea, a laboratory of advanced technologies for biotechnology research and animal reproduction, noted in a statement.

The breakthrough has renewed hopes of preventing the northern white rhino from disappearing from the face of the earth.

“These are the first in-vitro produced rhinoceros embryos ever. They have a very high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother,” said Prof Thomas Hildebrandt, Head of the Department of Reproduction Management at the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) in Berlin.

Special circumstances

The international team of researchers successfully managed to adapt reproduction techniques used in horses to the special circumstances of rhino species, opening up the potential to bring back the northern white from the brink of extinction.

Sudan, the last white male northern rhino in the world, died aged 45 at Ol Pejeta.

The rhino had been suffering from age-related complications that led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones combined with extensive skin wounds.