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A Race to Save the Rhinos

“We are committed to do all that is humanly possible to nurture, protect and recover the species.” These words of encouragement are from Samuel Mutisya, Head of Research and Species Conservation at Ol Pejeta Conservancy Park in Nanyuki, Kenya. He is supported by a team of dedicated scientists as part of the BioRescue Project, an international research institute determined to save the northern white rhinoceros. It is an extremely complex scientific journey that started in 1995 that continues to this day. 

Once a thriving species that roamed across Central and Eastern African savannas, the northern white rhino is now classified as ‘functionally extinct’. Habitat loss and illegal poaching has caused the population to rapidly decline from over 2,000 in the 1960s to the last surviving pair in 2024. The mother-daughter duo Najin and Fatu, who live inside the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, carry the final hope for scientists working tirelessly to resurrect this species. 

The BioRescue Project, funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research, has resorted to using fertility methods, namely in vitro fertilisation (IVF) and surrogacy, to mimic a natural pregnancy. The first step is extracting the eggs and sperm from the southern white rhinos, a close biological relative of the northern white, to artificially create a rhino embryo for growth and monitoring in a laboratory. This challenging procedure had taken over 13 attempts due to the sheer size of a rhino, weighing over three tonnes.

This success meant scientists at the BioRescue Project could move on to phase two of their plan: IVF with the northern white rhino embryos. Currently infertile, scientists were able to collect the eggs from Najin and Fatu, fertilising them using the sperm from Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, who had died in 2018. There are over 30 of these embryos stored in laboratories in Germany.

The next phase in this radical rescue project is finding a viable surrogate for the northern white rhino embryos. All eyes turn to the southern white rhinos which, because of genetic proximity, have the most probable chance of successfully carrying and birthing a northern white calf. 

Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, the director of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany and a key contributor to the BioRescue Project, argues that social interaction is the key to ensuring this project’s success. Through raising the calf alongside Najin and Fatu, Hildebrandt and his team hope to imitate a sense of family and companionship, giving the future of the species an even stronger chance of survival and self-sufficiency.

Credit: Unsplash.

Furthermore, the journey to saving the northern white rhinos does not just stop there.

Scientists at the BioRescue Project are aware that rhino IVF is not a long-term solution to re-populating the species. A separate wing of the project is dedicated to artificially creating rhino eggs, sperm, and embryos using stem cell technology. Scientists were able to extract skin fibroblasts, the main cell type present in the skin’s connective tissue, from Nabire, Fatu’s aunt, who had died in 2015. In a paper published in Science Advances journal, scientists successfully cultivated primordial germ cells (PGCs), a type of stem cell that gives rise to gametes — the reproductive cells of animals or plants —in vertebrates. The next step lies in finding viable surrogates to carry out these innovative reproduction methods and give the northern white rhinos the best shot at a future. 

The methods utilised by the BioRescue Project to revive this rhino species are a testament to the innovative and ever-changing scientific world we live in today. It is inspiring to see the international scientific and research community collaborate and work together to find permanent solutions to save this species. It's a race to save the rhinos, and the finish line is within sight.

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