Near-extinct northern white rhino could be saved with embryo breakthrough

5 Jul 2018

A pair of northern white rhinos. Image: Jiri Balek/Shutterstock

A major embryo breakthrough could help save one of the most endangered animals on the planet, and many more in the future.

Earlier this year, the rather sad news was announced that the last male northern white rhino had died. This put the species on the brink of extinction with seemingly no chance of natural reproduction as the only two known to exist are both female.

However, an important breakthrough in embryo research could be about to reinvigorate the species, according to the BBC.

In a paper published to Nature Communications, Prof Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and a team of international researchers revealed they had recovered sperm from two dead male rhinos.

Using embryos made from eggs from a closely related sub-species, they were able to conduct IVF treatment with the hope that a fully northern white rhino baby could be born in as little a timeframe as three years.

Getting this far was no easy feat, however, as the team explained that it had to create an entirely new extraction device just to obtain an oocyte (egg) from the female rhino.

Even with the rhino put under anaesthetic, the procedure is very risky because there is a crucial artery right near the ovaries, and it could cause the rhino to bleed out if punctured.

Confident it can work

When the eggs were retrieved, the rhino sperm – several years old at this point – was inserted into the egg and then electrically stimulated to create a fusion between them.

“Everyone believed there was no hope for this sub-species,” Hildebrandt said. “But, with our knowledge now, we are very confident that this will work with northern white rhino eggs and that we will be able to produce a viable population.”

The challenge now is to find an effective way to accumulate northern white rhino eggs given that only two of the species are known to still exist, but the likelihood is that any embryos produced will need to be cryopreserved until a surrogate can be found.

Otherwise, attempts to prevent total extinction rely on eliminating poaching entirely, but this has proven tricky in the past and no doubt will in the future, too.

Speaking to the BBC, Dr Terri Roth from Cincinnati Zoo said: “The proper legislation must be passed, the resources to enforce the regulations must be provided and the law must be upheld.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic