Saving Africa’s northern white rhinoceros using in vitro fertilisation

The surrogate mother in this case is a southern white rhino; a close evolutionary neighbour.

Jol Tarongo
20th February 2024
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons @Sheep81 https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Northern_White_Rhinoceros_Angalifu.jpg
Bad news? We have led yet another species to their demise. Good news? We are trying to undo our horrifying destruction.

For decades, the northern white rhinoceros had been hunted for their horns which people superstitiously believed had medicinal properties(spoiler alert: it’s just keratin- the stuff our nails are made of!). This poaching caused a massive decline of the species to the point that only two members, both females, remain in the Ol Pejeta Conservatory in Kenya. And their extinction poses a great threat to the finely curated ecosystem of millions of years.

Quite recently, our last two northern rhinos saw some hope of making more friends thanks to in vitro fertilisation. In vitro fertilisation(IVF) is the process where fertilisation of sperm and egg occurs outside the womb, in laboratory conditions, and is implanted into the uterus of a surrogate mother who then gives birth once the foetus has matured. The surrogate mother in this case is a southern white rhino; a close evolutionary neighbour of the northern ones. 

Currently, there are 30 preserved embryos to be implanted into the southern white rhinos. After that, the BioRescure team plans on genetically reengineering skin cells extracted from preserved tissue samples of dead northern white rhinos to develop them into sex cells using stem cell techniques. This will allow them to produce many more embryos and also increase the genetic diversity of the population, since a small gene pool means that they will have a limited ability to adapt to environmental changes which again increases the risk of extinction. 

Another approach to increasing numbers and genetic diversity is cross-breeding northern and southern white rhinos; however, the behavioural and ecological implications of a cross-bred species in future cannot be determined, therefore making it a risky decision which should be kept as a last resort.

So, will we humans be able to do Mother Nature justice? Or will our very existence mean destruction till the end? The success of the BioRescue team over the next few years might give us the answer.

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