Scientists have achieved the first in vitro fertilization of a Southern white rhinoceros, marking a critical step towards the conservation of the nearly extinct Northern white rhino, which now only has two females.
Thomas Hildebrandt, the project leader, declared, “We have achieved something that was believed to be impossible.” This successful fertilization of a southern white rhino with an embryo of the same species is a “crucial breakthrough” for the northern white rhino, facing the threat of extinction. Hildebrandt, part of the BioRescue scientific group supported by the German Ministry of Research, emphasized the significance of this accomplishment.
The next phase of the ambitious breeding program involves attempting the same feat with an embryo of the Northern White Rhino in a surrogate mother of the closely related Southern White Rhino species. This reproductive program, facilitated by in vitro fertilization of ova by injecting frozen sperm, represents the last chance for the survival of these animals.
The two remaining Northern white rhino females, Najin and her daughter Fatu, are too old to carry a pregnancy to term. The last male, Sudan, died in 2018 in the Ol Pejeta reserve in Kenya, where Najin and Fatu live under 24-hour surveillance, protected from poachers.
Hildebrandt’s team aims to “produce Northern white rhinos in the next two and a half years.” However, the process may take longer, as rhino pregnancies last 16 months.
This technology could serve as a model for other endangered rhino species, such as the Sumatran rhinoceros in Southeast Asia. Despite having few natural predators, rhino populations have declined due to poaching since the 1970s. Modern rhinos have roamed the planet for 26 million years, with over a million estimated to have lived in the wild by the mid-19th century.