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Scientists Successfully Perform World's First Rhino IVF

A rhino.
Credit: Nicole Wreyford / Unsplash.
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Conservationists in Kenya are celebrating a massive step forward in what they hope will be the safeguarding the future of the northern white rhino.

A subspecies of the white rhino, the northern white rhino was once found roaming the grasslands across central Africa, but due to illegal poaching is now represented by just two surviving individuals, both of which are female.

To prevent the subspecies from sliding into extinction, scientists around the world have spent years trying to figure out how to perform IVF on rhinos. By using preserved sperm from the last living male northern white rhino, and combining with the eggs taken from one of the surviving females, the idea is to then implant the resulting embryo into a southern white rhino surrogate.

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But no one had ever successfully performed IVF on a rhino, until now. In September 2023, scientists were able to transfer a southern white rhino embryo into a surrogate mother. Unfortunately, after 70 days the mother died because of an unrelated bacterial infection.

None the less, this is still a historic milestone.

The procedure has been performed by the Biorescue project, an international consortium which aims to halt the extinction of animals. Using the sperm and eggs of southern white rhinos as a proxy, the team managed to transfer a lab-created embryo into a surrogate mother.

‘This little baby is the proof of everything,’ Thomas Hildebrandt, who heads the Biorescue project, told the Guardian. ‘The sperm injection, the fertilisation, the liquid nitrogen, the thawing – this was never done before for rhinos.’

‘All of it could have failed.’

It didn’t, and now the team know that their techniques work. The plan now is to try this with one of 30 northern white rhino embryos currently being kept on ice. 

Saving rhinos from extinction

The white rhino is one of two species of rhino that can be found on the African continent. Historically, white rhinos were once found across much of southern, eastern and central Africa, with the animals living in two populations thought to be distinct enough that they are classed as different subspecies.

But whilst the southern subspecies had a brush with extinction, being reduced to just a few hundred individuals, it has made a remarkable comeback with over 15,000 now wandering the savannah.

The northern white rhino, however, has not fared so well. The last wild animals were spotted in the grasslands of the Democratic Republic of Congo in 2005, with a further unconfirmed report in 2009 of a few individuals in southern Sudan.

The decline of the northern subspecies prompted conservationists to attempt to save the animals from extinction. This involved finding all the surviving northern white rhinos held in captivity around the world and bringing as many back to their native range in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya.

Attempts were made to breed the remaining animals, but none were successful and in 2018 the last male northern white rhino, called Sudan, died at the reserve. The only potential for the subspecies to be brought back from the brink is with IVF using Sudan’s preserved sperm. This is what the team are planning on trying next.

If the team are able to successfully produce a handful of northern white rhino calves, they then plan on using genetic engineering techniques to increase the genetic diversity and prevent future inbreeding.

Erustus Kanga, the director general of Kenya Wildlife Service. ‘Kenya Wildlife Service is delighted to have been part of this journey for the last 13 years, since the northern white rhinos were brought to Kenya in 2009, and for being part of the great initiative of the BioRescue consortium over the last four years,’ he told The Guardian.

‘This is a great milestone in the preservation of the northern white rhino genetic lineage.’ 

It is hoped that this technique will have wider applications, with the suggestion it could also be able to help save the Critically Endangered Sumatran rhino, of which less than 100 animals are thought to survive.

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