Scientists create northern white rhino embryos to save species

Wednesday September 11 2019

A white rhino. Rhinos have few predators in the wild due to their size but have been devastated by poaching for their horns, used in traditional Chinese medicine. PHOTO | KWS


A group of scientists in Italy have successfully created two northern white rhino embryos in a major step towards saving the species from extinction.

The creation of the embryos was achieved at Avantea Laboratories in Cremona, Italy in an In-Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) process, that involved the fertilisation of collected eggs by sperm in a lab.


The group which included conservationists collected the mature eggs from Najin and Fatu, the two females living at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya on August 22. The sperms were collected from two different northern white rhino bulls- Suni and Saut.

In a statement, the Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) said that the creation of the embryos was made possible by a team led by Prof. Cesare Galli.

The agency quoted Dr Galli saying that they had brought ten oocytes back from Kenya, five from each female.


“After incubation seven matured and were suitable for fertilisation (four from Fatu and three from Najin)”, says Galli.

The scientist said that Fatu’s eggs were injected with Suni’s sperm while Najin’s eggs were injected with Saut’s sperm using a procedure called ICSI (Intra Cytoplasm Sperm Injection).


Scientists in Italy have successfully created two northern white rhino embryos. PHOTO | COURTESY

However, Saut’s semen was of really poor quality and the scientists had to draw additional samples to find viable sperms for ICSI.

“After ten days of incubation, two of Fatu’s eggs developed into viable embryos that were cryopreserved for future transfer. Najin’s eggs did not make it to a viable embryo despite the fact that one egg initiated segmentation,” the prof said.


Scientists have successfully created two northern white rhino embryos. PHOTO | COURTESY

This was the first time ever, that Scientists were able to collect oocytes (immature eggs) from both Najin and Fatu.

Another scientist, Prof Thomas Hildebrandt said that the team had developing and planning these procedures for years and that the achievement was an important milestone in the rescue program of the northern white rhino.

The consortium is partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and comprises of internationally renowned institutions from Germany, Italy, Czech Republic, Kenya, Japan and USA.


At the Italian laboratory, the eggs were then fertiliSed with sperm from males Suni and Saut — though only two of Fatu’s eggs developed into viable embryos. PHOTO | COURTESY

The scientists will in the next few months be transferring the embryo into a body of a surrogate mother where it is expected to mature.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy Director Richard Vigne says the development is a major step forward in efforts to recover the northern white rhinos.

“We have a very long way to go and we must remember that for most species facing extinction, the resources that are being dedicated to saving the northern whites simply don’t exist. Global human behaviour still needs to radically change if the lessons of the northern white rhinos are to be learned,” he said.


Using eggs harvested from the females and frozen sperm from deceased males, the team has been able to create two viable embryos. PHOTO | COURTESY

In the statement, Tourism and Wildlife Cabinet Secretary Najib Balala applauded the scientists, saying that the Kenya is greatly encouraged by breaking of new ground in the assisted reproduction technique.

“It has been decade of race against time and we are excited at the progress in reversing the hitherto bleak outlook for the northern white rhino,” said the CS.


There are only two survivors in the world, and both are female and unable to carry calves. PHOTO | KWS

For decades the story of the northern white rhinoceros has been a tale of decline.

The number of individuals further declined to only two in 2018, threatening to push the Northern White Rhino to complete extinction.