SAVING SPECIES

Five surrogate mothers lined up to receive white rhino embryos

IVF technology used in the Avantea laboratory, Italy, to mature and fertilise eggs harvested in August.

In Summary

• On August 22, a team of veterinarians successfully harvested eggs from the two females who live in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. 

• The northern white rhinos, surrogates and their offspring will be under 24-hour armed surveillance.

Wardens assist 'Sudan' as it grazes at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia national park, Kenya June 14, 2015. He died in March last year leaving science to save the species.
Wardens assist 'Sudan' as it grazes at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia national park, Kenya June 14, 2015. He died in March last year leaving science to save the species.
Image: FILE

Five southern white rhinos are lined up to receive the white rhino embryos.

On Wednesday, a joint effort by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) Berlin, Avantea, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS) announced the successful generation of two embryos. 

On August 22, a team of veterinarians successfully harvested eggs from two females who live in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya — a procedure that has never been attempted in northern white rhinos before.

A total of 10 eggs were harvested from Najin and Fatu the last two northern white rhinos on the planet. Neither of them is able to carry a pregnancy.

Following the successful harvesting of the eggs, they were matured, fertilised with northern white rhino semen, generating the two embryos.

IVF technology was used in the Avantea laboratory, Italy.

Now stored in liquid nitrogen, the embryos will then be transferred to the southern white rhino surrogate mothers.

The offspring born in Kenya will be housed on Ol Pejeta Conservancy in a 700-acre secure enclosure.

Ol Pejeta Conservancy says there are five southern white rhinos in the protected enclosure, which have been kept empty for the purpose of the project.

"They belong to the Kenya Wildlife Service, the custodian of wildlife in Kenya.  For the embryo transfer, the animal has to be in full anaesthesia and it has to be trained for hormonal preparation."

The conservancy says there are 42 armed rangers that patrol the conservancy and 120 rhino patrol rangers to secure the rhinos. 

The northern white rhinos, surrogates and their offspring will be under 24-hour armed surveillance.

Every first calf will belong to Dvůr Králové Zoo while every second calve belongs to KWS.

It is planned that embryo transfer will be performed even in European zoos.

In 2009, Sudan and another male named Suni —  together with two females which were Sudan’s daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu — were relocated to Kenya from the Czech Republic.

Seven other white rhinos were moved from the Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic in 2009, but they struggled to produce an offspring.  

Fatu was born on June 29, 2000, and her mother Najin was born on July 11, 1989. 

Although mating attempts were witnessed, there were no pregnancies.

The concerted efforts to save the species started after the deterioration of Sudan's health early last year. 

Before Sudan moved to the 700-acre enclosure at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, he spent many years in the Czech Republic. 

With climate conditions and natural vegetation closer to the northern white rhino’s native habitat, the semi-wild setting at the conservancy in Nanyuki was intended to improve chances of breeding.

It was hoped that breeding would be stimulated by the rhinos being closer to their natural environment.

Scientists concluded in  2014 that, owing to various health issues, neither Najin nor Fatu were able to carry a pregnancy.

Sudan, the world's last standing male, died on March 19 last year at the age of 45 years at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia.

This meant that only science will help the species.

Northern white rhino is critically endangered; probably now extinct in the wild.

Its lifespan goes up to 40 years in the wild with a weight of about 1,700 to 2,400 kg or 1.7-2.4 tonnes.

It is the third-largest African animal after the elephant and hippo.