Groundbreaking IVF Treatment Could Save Endangered Rhino

The BioRescue project at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, run by Thomas Hildebrandt, hopes to prevent the extinction of the Northern White Rhino.

17.09.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo on Axios
Photo on Axios

The world is rapidly losing much of its biodiversity. Over 10,000 species go extinct every year — which in recent history includes the Pinta Island Tortoise, the Yangtze River Dolphin, and the Carribean Monk Seal.

The difficulties facing rhinos and tigers, in particular, are well-documented. And the end seems very near for the Northern White Rhino: Civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and a general culture of poaching has meant that there are only two left, both of which are female and unable to carry offspring. ‘Najin’ and her daughter ‘Fatu’ are both resident at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, closely guarded by armed professionals.

Yet a scientific breakthrough may well save the species. The German Government recently directed four million euros towards the BioRescue project at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, which works to “push the boundaries of what is medically and technically feasible for the benefit of species conservation.”

An international team of scientists, led by Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, is using common IVF procedures to mix eggs from the two remaining female rhinos and frozen sperm from dead males.

And so far, they’ve been successful: After 10 days of incubation, two of the collected eggs developed into viable embryos.

The idea is to then transfer the embryos into a different species, the Southern White Rhino, of which there are still 21,000 left, which would act as a surrogate mother. The Biorescue team completed such a transfer for a different embryo back in March.

“Today we achieved an important milestone on a rocky road which allows us to plan the future steps in the rescue programme of the Northern White Rhino,” Hildebrandt said, as quoted by The Guardian.

The newspaper adds that the hope is that a Northern White Rhino will be born in the next two years (the gestation period for a rhino is around 15 months). The problem they then face is a lack of genetic diversity but scientists are also hopeful that eggs could eventually be created from rhino skin cells stores around the world.

Richard Vigne, managing director of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, said: “We have a very long way to go and we must remember that, for most species facing extinction, the resources that are being dedicated to saving the northern whites simply don’t exist. Global human behaviour still needs to radically change if the lessons of the northern white rhinos are to be learned.”

The initiative to save the rhinos can be supported here.

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