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Saving Northern White Rhino from extinction

Kenyan scientists and their counterparts from other areas globally are an inch closer to saving the Northern white rhino species from extinction through in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), with only two remaining at Ol Pejeta conservancy in Laikipia County.

The BioRescue team, who are racing against time, have harvested about 29 oocytes, which were flown to a lab in Cremona, Italy, for maturing and as they wait for the right time to implant them into the viable Southern White rhino, notes Samuel Mutisya, Olpejeta Conservancy Head of Research and Species Conservation.

“We have been able to harvest oocytes from one female, the northern white rhino, since the other is no longer viable and has since been retired from the project. What we have harvested from time to time has been flown to Italy for purposes of maturing,” says Mutisya.

Mutisya points out that the oocytes, after the maturity period, will be fused with sperm, which were harvested from Sudan, the Northern male white rhino that died in 2018 due to poor health, aimed at ensuring they save the colossal species.

“After the oocytes mature, they will be fused with the Sudan, the northern white rhino’s sperm, and others that we were able to collect before they died. Until now, we have been able to collect 29 embryos that are preserved in liquefied nitrogen for utilisation,” reveals the conservationist.

He adds that, since the two remaining white rhinos are incapable of supporting pregnancy due to old age and health-related problems, they were taking their chances through surrogate mothers who had similar features as those of the northern white rhinos.

“We can’t implant these embryos in the Nothern white rhinos, the fact being that the younger female from whom we collect the oocytes can’t carry pregnancy due to a condition in the uterus, and the other female is old, has skeletal issues, and can’t carry pregnancy full-term,” points out Mutisya.

Mutisya reveals that they are monitoring the surrogate mother round the clock by using the teaser bull for the pregnancy implantation process.

“We are left with only one option: selecting the next suitable embryo carrier, which is the southern white rhino and a close relative of the northern white. We are first perfecting the producer by determining the most suitable time of implantation,” reveals Mutisya.

The IVF process, which had never been tested before, Mutisya reveals that they had perfected it since it was their only hope in saving the northern white rhino species.

He cautions that timing was crucial since it would be a huge success to see calves interact with the two remaining northern white rhinos, a move that would ensure they get traits of their parents.

“This is a procedure we would like to do soon because time is of essence. We want to rescue this species while their parents are still alive. We would like to see a young calf with one of these females. They would share some of the social behaviours and other traits to maintain the population,” says the conservationist.

The conservationist, however, noted that despite their touted effort, the project had equal challenges since it had never been done before and therefore needed to perfect every move targeted at saving the rare breed of the northern white rhino.

Meanwhile, poaching of this critically endangered species in the past had led to their reduction in the wild; now all efforts by the government and other partners are geared towards ensuring they are not completely extinct.

By Muturi Mwangi

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