A consortium of scientists and conservationists working to save the northern white rhinoceros from extinction has expressed hope of having the first calf within two years.
BioRescue consortium experts said they are using advanced reproductive technologies to raise the first offspring from nine unique embryos harvested from two surviving northern white rhinos in Kenya.
Project leader and head of reproductive management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research Thomas Hildebrandt said they intend to transfer embryos to surviving white rhinos that will act as surrogate mothers, paving the way for the birth of a new northern white rhinoceros calf with a gestation of 16 months ancient rhinoceros.
There are five southern white rhinos in a protected enclosure at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The case was kept empty for the purposes of the project.
“We hope to be able to transfer the embryo as quickly as possible, and we intend not to need more than two years to have the calf,” said Prof. Hildebrandt on Monday in the residence of the German Ambassador in Kenya.
The scientists harvested 10 immature eggs last year – two from Najin and eight from Fatu.
Najin and Fatur are the last two surviving northern white rhinos on the planet. However, neither of them can carry a pregnancy to term.
The egg cells – cells that divide into an egg cell – were immediately transported to the Avantea laboratory in Cremona, Italy, under the direction of Prof. Cesare Galli, where, after the egg cells had matured and fertilized with the seeds of Suni, a white rhinoceros, embryos who died in 2014.
The project leader stated that the program has been successful so far and represents an opportunity to save the rhinos from extinction.
Wait 10 years
He said the nine embryos are currently stored in liquid nitrogen and can wait more than 10 years.
“We need a calf as soon as possible so that the two survivors can transfer their knowledge of survival to the calf,” he said.
This will then pave the way for the restoration of the northern white rhinoceros to their natural habitat over the next 20 years with advanced technology and research.
The project, he said, would serve as a blueprint to save other endangered species threatened with extinction from human aggression and interference with their habitat.
The German ambassador to Kenya, Annett Gunther, said her country had pumped 523 million shredders (4.2 euros) into the protection of the white rhinoceros through the BioRescue Consortium project.
Save many species
Ms. Gunther said if the technology is successful it could save many other species that are critically endangered.
“It’s a perfect example of how international research and collaboration with advanced wildlife conservation technologies can address our common challenges such as conservation of biodiversity, rapid population growth, climate change, conflict and pandemics,” said Ms. Gunther.
For his part, Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) Director of Parks and Reserves Charles Musyoki said Kenya is the epicenter of the project, with 10 scientists from across the country participating in the program.
He said the project’s success would result in the repopulation of the northern white rhinoceros in Africa, which is now critically endangered due to poaching activities for the past 40 years.
“The chances are we will succeed and as a government we will continue to do everything we can to ensure that the first calf shows up,” he said.
Create a breeding herd
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Ol Pejeta Conservancy’s executive director Richard Vigne said it was necessary to create a breeding flock of northern white rhinos as no calf can save the species.
He said a breeding flock was the only way to create a platform for reintroducing the species into its natural habitat.
Mr Vigne expressed the hope that the recreational voyage could follow that of the Eastern black rhinoceros native to Kenya, whose numbers had dropped to just 350 by the late 1980s, but thanks to joint efforts between KWS and the private sector, it has a population of around 1,000.
Mr Vigne pointed out that the southern white rhinoceros had shrunk to around 50 by the turn of the century, but have since recovered to become the most populous species of rhino in the world.
“We hope this story repeats itself with the northern white rhinoceros. We know it will be a long journey, but we are wholeheartedly behind this project as rhinos are our signature species,” said Vigne.