Scientists have for the third time successfully harvested eggs from the last two remaining female Northern White Rhinos at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County.
The exercise that was also witnessed by Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary (CS), Najib Balala on Tuesday saw 10 immature eggs (oocytes) extracted from the two critically endangered Northern White Rhinos christened Najin and Fatu and are expected to be fertilized with sperm harvested from the last Northern white male that died of old age in 2018.
Najin the older of the two at 31 years produced two eggs while her offspring Fatu 16 years old managed eight.
The delicate procedure was led by scientists from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and Czech Safari Park, Dvur Kralove after a four-month hiatus owing to the global Covid-19 pandemic that brought about international air travel restrictions.
The scientists were also assisted by veterinary doctors from the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) and the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
Prof.Dr. Thomas Hilderbrandt from Leibniz-IZW who led the exercise said that the procedure involved harvesting the oocytes from the animals’ ovaries using a probe with a movable needle guided by ultrasound. The animals were first placed on anaesthesia.
“The anaesthesia on the two animals and the ovum pick up went on smoothly without any complications. We are hopeful for more success as we progress to save this endangered species,” Prof. Hilderbrandt said.
The oocytes were immediately airlifted to Avantea Laboratory in Italy via Germany where they will be incubated and matured, then fertilized with sperm from the deceased Northern white rhino bull to form an embryo that would later be implanted on a surrogate Southern white rhino to carry it to term.
So far, two viable Northern white rhino embryos have successfully been generated in previous procedures at the Avantea Laboratory and are currently stored in liquid nitrogen awaiting identification of an appropriate surrogate mother.
Balala said that the project should galvanize the world’s attention to the plight of endangered species.
“The progress made so far in the Northern white rhino assisted project is very encouraging, and we look forward to the transfer of the already developed embryos into southern white rhino surrogate females here at Ol Pejeta Conservancy,” Balala said.
The CS lauded Ol Pejeta Conservancy for its leading role in rhino conservation, noting that cases of rhino poaching had drastically reduced in the country in the last two years.
Ol Pejeta Conservancy Chief Executive Officer, Richard Vigne said that it had been an immense struggle to try and recover the northern white rhino species from the brink of extinction.
“We hope to see light at the end of the tunnel following the incredible work done by the bioresearch team together with KWS with our assistance. So far we are making progress,” Vigne said.
The first ovum pickup was conducted in August 2018 and the second one done a year later at Ol Pejeta conservancy.
By Martin Munyi