In Kenya, the world’s last male northern white rhino continues to battle health problems. The fate of the species rests on this rhino, Sudan, and his two surviving family members, daughter Najin and granddaughter Fatu. Now, an international collaboration of scientists and conservationists is looking for ways to prevent the extinction of the species using in vitro fertilization (IVF).
The rhinos cannot reproduce naturally as Sudan has been infertile for years. This collaborative effort, which includes experts from the San Diego Zoo Global, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, and South African company Embryo Plus, hopes to combine semen collected from dead northern white rhinos while they were still alive with the eggs of the last two surviving female rhinos to continue the species.
A female of a different subspecies, the southern white rhino, would serve as a surrogate mother to carry the child as both Najia and Fatu have physical ailments preventing them from carrying a pregnancy.
Because of his infertility, Sudan’s death wouldn’t prevent the recovery of the northern white rhino species, Richard Vigne, CEO of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy where Sudan lives, told The Associated Press.
However, in vitro fertilization with the species will be difficult and could fail, so it is of the utmost importance that Najin and Fatu survive at least “until such time when the protocol or technique for in vitro fertilization has been perfected so that we can begin that process,” Vigne said.
In 2016, a cape buffalo gave birth to a calf conceived via IVF for the first time, and the technique is routinely used in the cattle industry. However, with limited genetic material, the stakes for the northern white rhino are higher. If the IVF fails, conservationists could be out of options.
Those who support the northern white rhino IVF plan hope it could be used with other endangered species. However, some conservationists think researchers should focus on saving species that are critically endangered due to poaching and humans moving into their native habitats.
Some groups, such at the London-based Save the Rhino, think the northern white rhino subspecies is too endangered to save.
“With small chance of healthy new calves, and limited place in their historic range to go, Save the Rhino believes that the best outcome will be to put our efforts and funding – including research into IVF – into saving the species which do still have a chance,” according to the group’s website.
Jo Shaw, an African rhino expert with the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) conservation group, echoed those concerns.
“The real fight for the survival of northern white rhinos in their natural habitat was lost over a decade ago,” she told The Associated Press. “Large mammals, like rhinos, should be seen as symbols of large functioning ecosystems, and we must focus our efforts and energy on their protection and ongoing survival within these vital landscapes around the globe.”
Those sentiments do not mean that continuing the northern white rhino species through IVF is impossible. Researchers just face an uphill battle due to the shortage of genetic material and high risk of failure.
Though it’s heavily poached and still considered a threatened species, the southern white rhino species survived near-extinction in the 19th century. Perhaps future conservation efforts will focus more heavily on prevention and protection, but it is still possible to save the northern white rhino.