Seven Worlds, One Planet

Living on the brink

Saving the northern white rhino.

It is one of the most painful and unthinkable situations that we humans, as a species, have to face up to. The extinction of a once thriving group of animals due to our own thoughtless behaviour.

The plight of the northern white rhino is a particularly distressing story. Once there were thousands of this sub-species living across Africa, but relentless attacks by poachers supplying the lucrative, illegal trade in rhino horn has devastated the population.

two rhinos
Najin and Fatu, both female, are the last of their species. © Alex Board | © BBC NHU
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Now there are just two and as these final survivors, Najin and Fatu, are both female and incapable of sustaining a pregnancy, many now consider these rhinos to be extinct with no chance of returning. The two that remain live out their lives constantly surrounded by armed guards at all times.

As James Mwenda, a ranger on the Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya explains: “We watch them every day, looking at extinction. There’s nothing much they can do except accept the fate that you’ve allowed them to be in.”

The last male northern white rhino, Sudan, was killed by poachers in 2018, seemingly damning the species to obliteration.

In spite of this there is hope.

Just as humans were responsible for the eradication of the northern white rhino, other humans are stepping up to potentially save the species, thanks to innovative, scientific techniques.

These two rhinos have a 24/7 armed guards to protect them from potential poachers. © Alex Board | © BBC NHU

“We are confident that we will change the world.”

These are the words of Professor Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research. He’s determined to save these creatures. For the past 5 years, Thomas and his colleagues have been developing a project using radical new in vitro fertilisation procedures.

We can have 10, 20 maybe 30 embryos a year and then create a new northern white rhino population in a very short time.”

Professor Robert HiltonDurham University

Eggs are to be taken from Najin and Fatu and mixed with frozen sperm extracted from deceased male northern white rhinos. If fertilisation occurs, the embryos will be implanted into a female southern white rhino who will, hopefully, give birth.

As Professor Robert Hermes from the Institute explains, “We can have 10, 20 maybe 30 embryos a year and then create a new northern white rhino population in a very short time.”

It sounds miraculous, but the science is new, the timeframes are tight and the entire endeavour is fiendishly complicated. The rhinos have to be tranquillised and then an ultrasound used to locate the ovaries. Once the eggs are found and harvested, they have to be dispatched to a laboratory in Italy to be fertilised within a few hours. It’s nail-biting stuff.

rhino eye
A conservation project is underway to try and save this species by using a surrogate mother southern white rhino. © Alex Board | © BBC NHU

If any element of the procedure goes wrong then the entire project - and many years work - will be lost. As will the fate of the rhinos.

But the team from Leibniz Institute triumphed. Ten eggs were removed Najin and Fatu with two successfully fertilised. Now a surrogate mother is being sought and hopefully, soon, the first northern white rhino baby for many years will be born.

With a little luck there could well be a future for the northern white rhino and it appears that Professor Hildebrandt and his team have indeed changed the world.

Featured Image © BBC NHU