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Science

There are no male northern white rhinos left. Can IVF save the species?

A researcher works on artificial insemination to save the northern white rhino
Researcher Paola Turini works at the Avantea laboratory in Italy on artifical insemination to save the northern white rhino.
(Antonio Calanni / Associated Press)

Silvia Colleoni’s hand trembled as she injected liquid into a pipette, preparing a sample of sperm for a delicate laboratory procedure.

The sperm had come from one of the last male northern white rhinos on Earth. All that remains of the species now are Najin and Fatu, two females in Kenya whose eggs were collected last week.

If those eggs can be fertilized with the once-frozen sperm, the species could have a future. If not, the northern white rhino could be doomed to extinction.

“It does create a little emotion,” said Colleoni, who works for the Italian assisted-breeding company Avantea. “After it was over, I was calm, but it’s a manual task — any error, any slipping, if it falls, will result in irreparable damage.”

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A researcher at the Avantea laboratory inseminates rhino eggs with bulls’ frozen sperm.
A researcher at the Avantea lab inseminates eggs from northern white rhinos with frozen sperm from bulls of the same species.
(Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

It will take about 10 days for researchers to learn whether the fertilization procedure carried out Sunday was a success. If all went well, as many as seven embryos could result, according to the company.

“We expect some of them will develop into an embryo,” said Avantea founder Cesare Galli, an expert in animal cloning.

Any embryos would be implanted into a surrogate mother rhino, since neither Najin, 30, nor Fatu, 19, can carry a pregnancy.

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The ultimate goal is to create a herd of at least five animals that could be returned to their natural habit in Africa. That could take decades.

Kenya Rhinos
A ranger at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy feeds Fatu. She and Najin are the last two northern white rhinos on the planet.
(Ben Curtis/Associated Press)

Decades of poaching decimated the northern white rhino. The last living male was a 45-year-old named Sudan, who gained fame in 2017 with his listing as “The Most Eligible Bachelor in the World” on the Tinder dating app in a fundraising effort. Sudan died last year of age-related complications.

Other rhinos — the southern white rhino and the black rhino — are also prey for poachers, who kill them for their horns to supply illegal markets in parts of Asia.

The sperm used Sunday came from two northern white rhinos named Suni and Saut who lived in a zoo in the Czech Republic, Galli said. Sperm from both bulls was used to enhance the chances of reproductive success, especially since Suni was the half-sibling of Najin.

Avantea said that only seven of 10 eggs extracted last week from the females in Kenya were suitable for use in the artificial insemination process Sunday.

A monitor displays an attempt to inseminate rhino eggs with rhino sperm
A monitor displays an attempt to inseminate the rhino eggs.
(Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

Colleoni recounted how, using joysticks, she guided the fertilization process. “It takes so much concentration, a lot of attention,” she said.

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She predicted “there will be more tension, more emotion” when she peered through a microscope to see if the fertilized eggs started dividing and growing into embryos.

Samples of Sudan’s sperm are still in Kenya, Galli said, raising the possibility that it could be used in future attempts to create more embryos.

A researcher works on the insemination process.
A researcher works on the insemination process.
(Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

He added that to improve chances for a species’ continuation, it is better not to wait to “get to the last two individuals before you use this technology.”

The efforts to save the northern white rhino species have been led by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, Avantea, the Dvur Kralove Zoo in Czech Republic, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya and the Kenya Wildlife Service.


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