Can In Vitro Fertilization Save the Northern White Rhino from Extinction?
Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, died in March 2018 due to age related decline. He was celebrated by kids and adults from all walks of life as the “most eligible bachelor” and “last male standing.” He was 45 years old when he passed, which is around 90 human years. With his death, hope for the white rhino subspecies all but vanished. Like so many other endangered animals, the demise of the northern white is attributed to years of poaching, in this case for rhino horn—illegally bought and sold on the black market.
Hope for the Future of the Northern White
Sudan left behind a daughter, Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu—the last two female northern white rhinos in the world. They live out their days grazing grasses in protected habitat within Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a not-for-profit wildlife sanctuary in Kenya for white and black rhino, great ape, and many other species.
Conservation scientists are hopeful that in vitro fertilization will save the northern white. In August 2019, a team of veterinarians successfully harvested 10 eggs from Najin and Fatu in a groundbreaking procedure involving internationally renowned institutions from Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Kenya, Japan and USA, including Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Avantea, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, and Kenya Wildlife Service.
Seven of the eggs were fertilized using sperm collected and frozen from northern white rhino bulls, and two were successfully made into embryos. Neither Najin or Fatu can carry a pregnancy, so the embryos are being stored in liquid nitrogen to be transferred into a surrogate southern white rhino mother in the near future. The ultimate aim is to produce a number of healthy, northern white rhinos that could eventually be returned to well-protected areas and establish new wild rhino populations.
In the meantime, caretakers at Ol Pejeta Conservancy guard the peaceable daughter-granddaughter pair and make sure they have what they need to live full and healthy lives.
“We are immensely proud to be part of the groundbreaking work being deployed to rescue this species. We hope it signals the start of an era where humans start to understand that proper stewardship of the environment is not a luxury but a necessity.”
— Richard Vigne, Managing Director of Ol Pejeta
Learn about BioRescue, the research project pioneering the northern white’s recovery.
Julie West, WPS Communications Specialist