UK rhino eggs ‘could save last north­ern whites’

The sci­en­tists may cre­ate hy­brids be­tween south­ern white and north­ern white rhi­nos

Muscat Daily - - OPINION -

A UK zoo is tak­ing part in a rad­i­cal plan to save the world’s last three north­ern white rhi­nos from ex­tinc­tion.

At Lon­gleat Sa­fari Park, sci­en­tists have col­lected eggs from south­ern white rhi­nos - a closely re­lated sub species - to use for IVF.

The eggs will help re­searchers to de­velop the tech­nol­ogy to help the re­main­ing north­ern whites to re­pro­duce.

A back-up plan is to mix eggs from the south­ern white rhi­nos with sperm from north­ern whites to cre­ate a hy­brid.

It means that if the bid to pro­duce a pure north­ern white rhino fails, at least some of the crit­i­cally en­dan­gered an­i­mal’s genes will live on.

Dar­ren Beasley, head of an­i­mal op­er­a­tions at Lon­gleat, added, “Ef­fec­tively the fe­male rhi­nos would act as IVF moth­ers, with em­bryos partly de­rived from north­ern white male sperm.”

“If the pro­ce­dure works, the hope would be that south­ern white fe­males would carry the de­vel­op­ing em­bryos for up to 18 months be­fore giv­ing birth.”

Ex­per­i­men­tal fer­til­ity tech­nol­ogy may be the last hope for north­ern white rhi­nos.

The an­i­mals were once found across cen­tral Africa, but il­le­gal poach­ing, fu­elled by the de­mand for rhino horn, wiped out the wild pop­u­la­tion.

To­day, there are just three of the an­i­mals left: A male, who is over 40, and two younger fe­males. The for­mer zoo an­i­mals, which are in­ter-re­lated, are kept un­der tight se­cu­rity at Ol Pe­jeta Con­ser­vancy in Kenya.

How­ever, a com­bi­na­tion of age and fer­til­ity prob­lems means that none is able to breed.

Dv r Králové Zoo in the Czech Repub­lic, which owns the an­i­mals, has now en­listed the help of wildlife fer­til­ity ex­perts from Ger­many and Italy.

The team be­lieves the north­ern white’s cousin - the south­ern white rhino - could be the key to sav­ing the species.

Pro­fes­sor Thomas Hilde­brandt, from the Leib­niz In­sti­tute for Zoo and Wildlife Re­search in Berlin, Ger­many, said, “We are try­ing to find a solution for a very crit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion: We have a doomed species.”

They have been col­lect­ing eggs from fe­male south­ern whites liv­ing in zoos around Europe.

Lon­gleat Sa­fari Park is the first UK zoo to take part, and the team man­aged to har­vest nine eggs from three fe­males last week.

The rhi­nos have not mated nat­u­rally with the zoo’s male, which is why they were put for­ward to take part in the study.

Ex­tract­ing the eggs re­quired mil­lime­tre pre­ci­sion.

Prof Hilde­brand said, “We have a two-tonne an­i­mal, and the ovaries are more than two metres in­side.”

“We op­er­ate on an ovary that is ly­ing next to a blood vessel and if we poke that with our nee­dle, there is a very high risk that the an­i­mal dies.”

“We have de­vel­oped a very so­phis­ti­cated tech­nique to make sure we don’t do any harm to the an­i­mals.”

The eggs have now been rushed back to the Avan­tea clinic in Italy, a lab that spe­cialises in as­sisted re­pro­duc­tion in an­i­mals, where they will be pre­pared for fer­til­i­sa­tion.

A rhino has never been born through IVF be­fore, and the first aim of the pro­ject is to re­fine the tech­nol­ogy us­ing south­ern white rhi­nos.

So far the team has mixed south­ern white eggs with south­ern white sperm, and has achieved cell divi­sion in early em­bryos, which have been cryo­geni­cally frozen and stored. None have yet been im­planted back into a rhino.

Later this year, the re- searchers plan to head to Kenya to har­vest eggs from the last two fe­male north­ern white rhi­nos. The sci­en­tists be­lieve their ex­trac­tion tech­nique is now so well es­tab­lished it will not put these an­i­mals at any risk.

These north­ern white eggs will be mixed with north­ern white sperm - and im­planted in a sur­ro­gate south­ern white mother - in a bid to pro­duce new off­spring.

The fer­til­ity sci­en­tists ad­mit the chances of suc­cess may be slim - but they are op­ti­mistic that the tech­nol­ogy could help.

Prof Hilde­brandt said: "The clas­si­cal con­ser­va­tion­ists would not even call this a con­ser­va­tion ap­proach, be­cause it is so tech­ni­cal, so far be­yond what you nor­mally do.

“But we hope fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will un­der­stand that this is the way to go. It is a tech­nol­ogy that al­lows us to bring a species back form the brink of ex­tinc­tion that would nor­mally be im­pos­si­ble - and that is our goal.”

“We are ex­tremely op­ti­mistic that we will achieve that.”

But the sci­en­tists also have a plan B: Mix­ing the eggs they have col­lected from south­ern whites with sperm from north­ern whites. This would cre­ate a hy­brid species.

This would not be the first: a cross was born at a zoo in the 1970s af­ter the two sub-species ac­ci­den­tally bred.

But it was lit­tle stud­ied. And de­spite the fact south­ern and north­ern white rhi­nos are very closely re­lated, some ques­tions re­main, such as whether a hy­brid could breed to pro­duce fur­ther off­spring.

But with the north­ern white at such a crit­i­cal con­ser­va­tion sta­tus, it could mean that at least some of its ge­netic ma­te­rial sur­vives.

Dr Robert Her­mes, also from the Leib­niz In­sti­tute for Zoo and Wildlife Re­search, said, “Our great hope is to go to Africa to col­lect eggs from these last two north­ern white fe­males and the fer­tilise them so we would have a pure bred north­ern white rhino em­bryo.”

“But the last north­ern whites could die any time: Any­thing could hap­pen to them, then all their ge­net­ics would be lost. If we have at least 50 per cent of this pre­served in a hy­brid - we would pre­serve at least half for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions.”

This res­cue plan - which is also ex­am­in­ing the role that stem cell tech­nol­ogy could play in the fu­ture - is con­ser­va­tion sci­ence at its most ex­treme.

And some wildlife ex­perts be­lieve that rather than pour­ing money and re­sources into a species that is nearly doomed, more ef­fort should be put in sav­ing more vi­able rhi­nos species, whose num­bers have plum­meted in re­cent years as poach­ing has surged.

But Jan Ste­jskal, from Dv r Králové Zoo, says that ev­ery ef­fort should be made to save the last north­ern whites - and this could help other an­i­mals too.

The eggs will be fer­tilised us­ing sperm drawn from the last male north­ern white rhino in Su­dan

The sci­en­tists at the Lon­gleat Sa­fari Park man­aged to har­vest nine eggs from three fe­males last week

The team used ul­tra­sound to look in­side the rhi­nos’ ovaries

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