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January 18, 2019

Scientific search for way to sustain northern white rhino

Sudan, the last surviving male northern white rhino./REUTERS
Sudan, the last surviving male northern white rhino./REUTERS

The death of Sudan has jolted scientists to seek scientific solutions to sustaining white rhinos. Sudan’s semen has been secured to help in conservation efforts.

He was the world’s last male northern white rhino. The 45-year-old died of age-related complications on March 19.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy CEO Richard Vigne said the semen has been stored in anticipation of in vitro fertilisation.

Sudan’s offspring Najin and granddaughter Fatu are the only white rhinos remaining at the conservancy. “We have the samples stored in Europe and America and other zoos, where northern white rhino used to be,” Vigne said.

Sudan was the first northern white rhino to undergo electro-ejaculation to extract semen in 2014. Some of the samples are stored in Kenya.

Vigne said available eggs are those Najin and Fatu have. IVF is a new procedure on rhinos. It has previously only been done on horses and human beings. Left with no options, scientists will attempt to develop artificial reproductive techniques, including IVF, to rescue the northern white rhino subspecies.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy and DvÃ…¯r Králové Zoo, in the Czech Republic, have partnered with the Institute for Zoo and Wildlife-Research Berlin, Avantea Cremona, Italy, and the Kenya Wildlife Service to conduct the first-ever procedure.

Eggs cells will be extracted from the two females. They will be fertilised before the resulting embryos are transferred into female southern white rhinos, who will act as surrogates.

Sudan developed age -related infections on his back last year, before his health deteriorated on March 1. A team of vets from around the world took care of him. Vigne said Sudan was euthanised after his condition “worsened significantly”. “He was a great ambassador for his species,” Vigne said.

Tourism CS Najib Balala said wildlife should be for Kenyans and Kenyans should be for wildlife.

Vigne said IVF was new to rhinos but has been done on other domestic animals. “Chances are extremely small and the species could eventually get extinct,” he said. He said the process, if it succeeds, could lead to the development of technology that will help save the endangered species. “Chance of rhinos roaming again will be nil if it does not succeed,” Vigne warned.

He said Sudan’s death proved to the world that endangered species could soon go extinct like dinosaurs.

“The current rate of extinction is happening faster than dinosaurs. It needs to stop as we have the power,” he said.

Laikipia Governor Ndiritu Mirithi said Sudan’s death is an indictment of human beings. “We need to go back to the drawing board and ensure communities are benefiting from conservation.”

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