Humanity may be able to save the northern white rhino after all, thanks to scientists who managed to create two in vitro embryos.
When Sudan, the last male northern white rhino left at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, died in 2018, the two female rhinos Fatu and Najin were the only ones left of their species. Since they couldn’t procreate, it seemed to be only a matter of time before the species would go extinct.
But on Wednesday, there was a breakthrough. An international consortium of scientists announced that they’d successfully extracted immature eggs from Fatu and Najin, and then airlifted them to Avantea laboratory in Italy.
When the eggs were ready for fertilization, they were injected with the sperm of two now-dead male northern white rhinos. Najin’s eggs didn’t make it, since the sample quality of the sperm used for her eggs was poor. But Fatu’s fertilized eggs did develop into viable embryos, and were promptly frozen, according to a statement from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, one of the partners in the consortium.
The two viable embryos will be transferred to a surrogate mother, since neither Najin nor Fatu can carry a pregnancy.
“Five years ago it seemed like the production of a northern white rhino embryo was [an] almost unachievable goal — and today we have them,” Jan Stejskal, Director of Communication and International Projects from Dvůr Králové Zoo, where Najin and Fatu were born, said in a statement. “The technique for collection of eggs was developed in cooperation with many European zoos and we are happy that this unique cooperation can continue even with attempts at successful embryo transfer.”
Moving forward, scientists must “optimize the process of transfer” of the embryos into a surrogate mother, and then carefully track the embryo’s development into a fetus.
The statement also called for additional funding and donations to “help to win our race against time,” emphasizing the importance of saving biodiversity and taking “environmental responsibility.”
The northern white rhino, like other rhino species, was driven to near extinction because of poaching. Rhino horns are prized in parts of Asia, where they’re believed to cure a variety of illnesses. The western black rhino went extinct in 2013 because of excessive poaching. The conservation group Save the Rhino says all five remaining rhino species are threatened in Africa and Asia.
But the possibility of an IVF white rhino baby could change that.
“This development marks a turning point in the race to save the northern white rhino from near extinction,” the Ol Pejeta Conservatory said in an Instagram post announcing the successful embryo creation.