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Scientists Fertilize Eggs from Last Two Northern White Rhinos to Save the Subspecies from Extinction

There were about 2,000 northern white rhinos in Africa in 1960 before habitat loss and poaching drastically reduced their numbers.

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Updated:August 29, 2019, 4:56 PM IST
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Scientists Fertilize Eggs from Last Two Northern White Rhinos to Save the Subspecies from Extinction
FILE PHOTO: The last surviving male northern white rhino named 'Sudan' is seen at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia, Kenya June 18, 2017. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File Photo
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The northern white rhino subspecies of rhinoceros became functionally extinct last year with the death of the last known male named Sudan. The 45-year-old animal was euthanized at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in view of “age-related complications that led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones combined with extensive skin wounds.”

But there is still some hope as a global team of scientists are racing against time to bring back the northern white rhino subspecies from the brink of extinction with the help of Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter— the only two northern white rhinoceroses left on the planet.

On Sunday, the scientists were able to fertilize seven of the 10 oocytes( eggs) that had been extracted from Najin and Fatu last week at a laboratory in Italy.

The scientists used sperm collected from male rhinos before they died, New York Times reported.

The outcome was better than expected, managing director of Avantea laboratory, Cesare Galli, was quoted as saying.

Scientists, veterinarians and conservationists from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya are also involved in the conservation effort.

“We were really able to do something no one before has been able to do,” said Jan Stejskal, the director of international projects at the Dvur Kralove Zoo. “We still don’t know whether we’ll have embryos, but it was successful anyway. We proved that there is a real chance for them to have offspring.”

The eggs were extracted by putting Najin and Fatu under general anesthesia.

“It was a big day for us,” said Frank Goeritz, the head veterinarian at the Leibniz Institute in Germany and in-charge of administering the anesthesia during the operation, which was also overseen by David Ndeereh of the Kenya Wildlife Service and Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute.

“It was quite successful,” Dr. Goeritz said.

The eggs, five each from Najin and Fatu , were sent to Italy to be fertilized by sperm that had been collected years earlier from two males named Suni and Saút.

Dr. Goeritz said a surrogate pregnancy— The New York Times reckons the southern white rhino might be a “good candidate”— will be required for a northern white rhino’s birth within a few years.

Last month, a southern white rhino calf was born at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park using hormone-induced ovulation and artificial insemination with frozen semen.

“The more those techniques are perfected, the more feasible it becomes that one of these rhinoceroses could eventually carry a northern white rhino to term.”

Dr. Galli said the number of the eggs fertilized this week becoming blastocysts should become clear next week .

But Dr. Galli said that egg fertilization alone was a huge step forward in terms of scientific achievement.

The northern white rhinos once roamed the grasslands of east and central Africa and their hairier ears and smaller bodies have led to calls by some researchers that they be considered a separate species.

There were about 2,000 northern white rhinos in Africa in 1960, according to Times, before habitat loss and poaching drastically reduced their numbers.

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