OL PEJETEA

10 eggs harvested to save northern white rhino

Scientists racing against time to save northern white rhino from extinction - the bulls have died but sperm was harvested.

In Summary

• Ten eggs successfully harvested from two females at Ol Pejeta - and flown to a lab in Italy where they will be incubated and matured, fertilised with sperm from deceased northern white rhino bulls. 

• The plan is to select a southern white rhino at Ol Pejeta Conservancy to serve as a surrogate mother for the northern white rhino embryo.

Two of the last remaining northern white rhinos in the world - females Najin and Fatu feed on carrots at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county on August 23.
SAVE THE RHINO: Two of the last remaining northern white rhinos in the world - females Najin and Fatu feed on carrots at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia county on August 23.
Image: MOSES MWANGI

Scientists have harvested 10 eggs from the last remaining two northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu, in the third-ever ovum collection at Ol Pejeta conservancy in Laikipia

The ambitious programme to save the northern white rhino from extinction took place on Tuesday, after a few months’ hiatus owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The progress so far in the northern white rhino assisted reproduction project is very encouraging, Tourism CS Najib Balala said on Tuesday.

“We look forward to the transfer of the already developed embryos into southern white rhino surrogate females here at Ol Pejeta.”

Balala, who was present during the egg harvesting, said the project would galvanise the world take action on the plight of endangered species.

He said it should remind people to avoid actions undermine law enforcement and fuel demand for rhino horn, used in traditional Asian medicine. As it’s so costly, it’s also a status symbol in East Asia.

The project is supported by the Kenya Wildlife Service and Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, a team from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and the Czech Safari Park Dvůr Králové.

Preparations for the next steps in the programme – the generation and transfer of embryos – are underway to ensure no valuable time is lost saving the northern white rhino from the brink of extinction. 

Twelve months after the groundbreaking first ‘ovum pickup’ in August 2019 and eight months after the second, the team repeated the procedure on Tuesday.

The animals were placed under general anaesthesia and 10 immature egg cells (oocytes) – two from Najin and eight from Fatu – were harvested from the animals’ ovaries. Scientists used a probe with a movable needle guided by ultrasound.

The anaesthesia and the ovum pickup went smoothly. The oocytes were airlifted immediately to the Avantea Laboratory in Italy. In the coming days, they will be incubated and matured, fertilised with sperm from deceased northern white rhino bulls.

It is hoped this will lead to viable northern white rhino embryos that will be stored in liquid nitrogen alongside the three embryos generated in the previous procedures.

This procedure was conducted several months behind the original schedule of BioRescue, the international consortium led by the Leibniz-IZW and partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

The Covid-19 pandemic has severely disrupted the project and its partners. Travel restrictions and contact prohibitions prevented work in European zoos and at Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

Partner organisations such as Safari Park Dvůr Králové and Ol Pejeta Conservancy faced – and continue to face – an existential threat as they largely depend on tourism.

The current Covid-19 crisis poses an unprecedented threat to wildlife conservation.

Since the northern white rhino offspring, which hopefully will arise from the programme, will grow up in the company of Najin and Fatu - and Najin is approaching old age – there is no time to be lost.

Preparations for the next steps of the mission are underway simultaneously with the generation of embryos.

The plan is to select a group of southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy from which a female could serve as surrogate mother for the northern white rhino embryo.

Additionally, the partners agreed on the procedure of sterilising a southern white rhino bull.

This bull, which has already produced multiple offspring, is crucial to trigger oestrus and create an ideal hormonal environment in the potential surrogates.

To achieve the best possible results for work with pure northern white rhino embryos, the team relies on experience from similar embryo transfer procedures in southern white rhinos. These have been performed to address reproduction challenges in European zoos.

Germany’s Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek said biodiversity is the foundation of our very existence.

"But it is increasingly threatened by the destruction of natural habitats, environmental pollution and climate change. The northern white rhinoceros has become a symbol of our joint efforts to fight the loss of biological diversity," she said.

Karliczek said the Federal Ministry of Education and Research supports rhino conservation work by funding the BioRescue project. It is part of the Research Initiative for the Conservation of Biodiversity.

"We are extremely grateful for the support we have received from the Kenyan government as partners in our efforts to save the northern white rhino. Thanks to the tremendous commitment shown by all involved, we now have the chance to save this animal from the threat of extinction,” she said.

(Edited by V. Graham)