Hope for the north­ern white rhino?

Pregnant rhino in San Diego could help save sub­species

The Expositor (Brantford) - - BUSINESS - JULIE WAT­SON THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

SAN DIEGO — A south­ern white rhino has be­come pregnant through ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park — giv­ing hope for efforts to save a sub­species of one of the world’s most rec­og­niz­able an­i­mals, re­searchers an­nounced Thurs­day.

Sci­en­tists will be watch­ing closely to see if the rhino named Vic­to­ria can carry her calf to term over 16 to 18 months of ges­ta­tion.

If she does, re­searchers hope some­day she could serve as a sur­ro­gate mother and could give birth to the re­lated north­ern white rhino, whose pop­u­la­tion is down to two fe­males af­ter decades of dec­i­ma­tion by poach­ers. The mother and daugh­ter north­ern white rhi­nos live in a Kenya wildlife pre­serve but are not be­lieved to be ca­pa­ble of bear­ing calves.

News of Vic­to­ria’s preg­nancy was con­firmed two months af­ter the death of the last north­ern white male rhino named Su­dan, who was also at the Kenya pre­serve and was eu­th­a­nized be­cause of ail­ing health in old age.

Vic­to­ria is the first of six fe­male south­ern white rhi­nos the San Diego Zoo In­sti­tute for Con­ser­va­tion Re­search is test­ing to de­ter­mine if they are fit to be sur­ro­gate moth­ers be­fore us­ing the lim­ited sperm and eggs of the north­ern white rhino that are in stor­age to im­preg­nate them.

The sci­en­tists want to use the frozen sperm and eggs that were taken from dead north­ern white rhi­nos to bring back a herd through ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion, in vitro fer­til­iza­tion and em­bryo trans­fer.

“The con­fir­ma­tion of this preg­nancy through ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion rep­re­sents an historic event for our or­ga­ni­za­tion but also a crit­i­cal step in our ef­fort to save the north­ern white rhino,” said Bar­bara Dur­rant, di­rec­tor of re­pro­duc­tive Sci­ences at the San Diego Zoo In­sti­tute for Con­ser­va­tion Re­search.

But more chal­lenges lie ahead, with ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion of rhi­nos in zoos rare so far and re­sult­ing in only a few births.

Vic­to­ria and the other five fe­male rhi­nos were re­lo­cated to San Diego’s Safari Park in 2015 and sci­en­tists will soon start de­vel­op­ing ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion tech­niques and em­bryo trans­fer tech­niques for them in their ef­fort to pro­duce north­ern white rhino calves.

“We will know that they have proven them­selves to be ca­pa­ble of car­ry­ing a fe­tus to term be­fore we would risk putting a pre­cious north­ern white rhino em­bryo into one of these south­ern white rhi­nos as a sur­ro­gate,” Dur­rant said.

Once that hap­pens, there will be more work to de­velop tech­niques that in­clude ma­tur­ing eggs, fer­til­iz­ing eggs and grow­ing em­bryos to the stage where they can be trans­ferred into the sur­ro­gate rhi­nos. While em­bryos have been cre­ated for south­ern white rhi­nos, they haven’t been for north­ern white rhi­nos — so there’s no guar­an­tee that the process will work.

The San Diego Zoo In­sti­tute for Con­ser­va­tion Re­search has the cell lines of 12 dif­fer­ent north­ern white rhi­nos stored in freez­ing tem­per­a­tures at its “Frozen Zoo.”

The ul­ti­mate goal is to cre­ate a herd of five to 15 north­ern white rhi­nos that would be re­turned to their nat­u­ral habi­tat in Africa. That could take decades.

Some groups have said in vitro fer­til­iza­tion is be­ing de­vel­oped too late to save the north­ern white rhino, whose nat­u­ral habi­tat in Chad, Su­dan, Uganda, Congo and Cen­tral African Repub­lic has been rav­aged by con­flicts in the re­gion. They say the efforts should fo­cus on other crit­i­cally en­dan­gered species with a bet­ter chance at sur­vival.

The south­ern white rhino and an­other species, the black rhino, are un­der heavy pres­sure from poach­ers who kill them for their horns to sup­ply il­le­gal mar­kets in parts of Asia.

There are about 20,000 south­ern white rhi­nos in Africa.

JULIE WAT­SON/THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Vic­to­ria, a pregnant south­ern white rhino, is seen Thurs­day at the San Diego Zoo. The rhino, which has be­come pregnant through ar­ti­fi­cial in­sem­i­na­tion at the park, is giv­ing hope for efforts to save a sub­species of one of the world’s most rec­og­niz­able an­i­mals, re­searchers an­nounced Thurs­day.

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