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September 23, 2017

South Africa unveils test-tube buffalo, plans IVF rhino

A white female rhino named Carol is seen after she was dehorned by the Animal and Wildlife Area Research and Rehabilitation (AWARE) at Lake Chivero Recreational Park in Norton, Zimbabwe August 25, 2016 /REUTERS
A white female rhino named Carol is seen after she was dehorned by the Animal and Wildlife Area Research and Rehabilitation (AWARE) at Lake Chivero Recreational Park in Norton, Zimbabwe August 25, 2016 /REUTERS

Almost 40 years after the first human test-tube baby was born, South African scientists have produced something bulkier: the first Cape buffalo brought into the world by in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

Pumelelo the buffalo bull calf was born on June 28 and was unveiled to the world this week at a game farm north of Johannesburg in South Africa's Limpopo province.

The technique holds hope for far bigger and more endangered species such as the northern white rhino - only three of them are left on the planet.

"This success is of major importance for the prospective breeding of endangered species, and that is the reason why we are undertaking this work," said Morne de la Rey, a veterinarian and the managing director of Embryo Plus, which specialises in bovine embryo transfers and semen collection, mostly for the cattle industry.

Proud parents are biological mother and egg donor "Vasti" and sperm donor "Goliat", which is Afrikaans for Goliath - in his bulky case, no misnomer. The baby bull has a surrogate mother which has taken to him.

He could grow to 1,000 kg (2,200 pounds) or more.

Cape buffalos are notoriously bad-tempered and dangerous animals and Vasti was sedated when her oocytes, or egg cells, were extracted using a technique similar to that used on human donors.

Game farming is big business in South Africa but those involved in the project said the main concern was conservation.

"The object is certainly not to reproduce buffalo of superior genetics ... the goal is the conservation of species," said Frans Stapelberg, the owner of the farm where Pumelelo was born.

The project will now focus on the northern white rhino and the trio who remain on the planet on the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The San Diego Zoo is partnering with that effort.

There are around 18,000 to 20,000 southern white rhinos left, mostly in South Africa, but they are being relentlessly poached for their horns to feed illicit demand in Asian countries such as Vietnam, where they are a prized ingredient in traditional medicine.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, there are around 900,000 Cape buffalo, also called African buffalo, on the continent but they are now mostly confined to protected areas.

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