Scientists create embryos to save near-extinct rhinos

September 12, 2019

Email

Nairobi: This March 20, 2018, file photo shows Najin (left) and Fatu, the only two remaining female northern white rhinos, graze in their paddock at a conservancy.—AFP
Nairobi: This March 20, 2018, file photo shows Najin (left) and Fatu, the only two remaining female northern white rhinos, graze in their paddock at a conservancy.—AFP

ROME: Conservationists have successfully created two northern white rhino embryos in a key step towards pulling the species back from the brink of extinction, scientists in Italy said on Wednesday.

There are only two survivors in the world, and both are female and unable to carry calves. The last male, named Sudan, died at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya last year, making scientists the majestic animals’ last chance.

Using eggs harvested from the females and frozen sperm from deceased males, a team in Cremona in Italy has been able to create two viable embryos, according to the BioRescue international consortium of scientists.

Najin, 30, and daughter Fatu, 19, are the last of the subspecies of white rhino, and live under 24-hour armed guard.

Neither is able to carry a calf. Fatu has degenerative lesions in her uterus and Najin has weak hind legs which could cause complications if she fell pregnant.

In August they underwent a highly risky procedure carried out by a team of international vets, which saw them anaesthetised for almost two hours, and their eggs extracted using techniques that have taken years of research and development.

At the Italian biotech laboratory Avantea, those eggs were then fertilised with sperm from males Suni and Saut — though only two of Fatu’s eggs developed into viable embryos.

They have now been stored in liquid nitrogen to be transferred into a surrogate mother in the near future.

“Five years ago, it seemed like the production of a northern white rhino embryo was an almost unachievable goal — and today we have them,” said Jan Stejskal, communications director at the Dvur Kralove Zoo, where Najin and Fatu were born.

Published in Dawn, September 12th, 2019