With only two members of the species left, a successful egg harvest and fertilization could mean all is not lost.
Things haven't been looking very good for the iconic northern white rhinoceros. With the 2018 death of Sudan, the world's last male of the species, only two females remain – and neither of them are able to carry a viable pregnancy.
Once roaming across the grasslands of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, years of widespread poaching and civil war have pushed the northern white rhino to almost sure extinction.But now, an international consortium of scientists and conservationists have completed a procedure that could save the species from being gone forever.
On August 22, veterinarians were successful in harvesting eggs from the two females – Najin and Fatu – who live in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Never before attempted in northern white rhinos, the girls were given general anesthesia for the procedure – in which doctors used a probe guided by ultrasound – that was developed after years of research and practice.
Seven of the ten eggs harvested successfully matured and were artificially inseminated through ICSI (Intra Cytoplasm Sperm Injection) with frozen sperm from northern white rhino bulls, Suni and Saút, who died in 2014 and 2018. If a successful embryo development follows, it will be transferred to a southern white rhino surrogate mother.
"The number of harvested oocytes is a wonderful success and proof that the unique cooperation between scientists, experts in zoos and conservationists in field can lead to hopeful prospects even for the animals that are imminently facing extinction," said Jan Stejskal from Dvur Kralove Zoo, where the two rhinos were born.
"The concerted efforts to save the last northern white rhinos should guide the resolutions the world makes at the ongoing CITES meeting in Geneva. The assisted reproductive technique should galvanize the world's attention to the plight of all rhinos and make us avoid decisions that undermine law enforcement and fuel demand for the rhino horn," added Hon. Najib Balala, Kenya's Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife.
While the process may seem a bit clinical – there was no splendor in the grasslands here – it was in no way cruel. The whole procedure was conducted with ethics at the forefront, and within framework developed by ethicists and the other scientists and veterinarians involved in the procedure. "We developed a dedicated ethical risk analysis in order to prepare the team for all possible scenarios of such an ambitious procedure and to make sure that the welfare of the two individuals was totally respected," said Barbara de Mori, a conservation and animal welfare ethics expert from Padua University.
It's a bittersweet moment, to be sure.
"On the one hand Ol Pejeta is saddened that we are now down to the last two northern white rhinos on the planet, a testament to the profligate way the human race continues to interact with the natural world around us. However we are also immensely proud to be part of the ground breaking work which is now being deployed to rescue this species. We hope it signals the start of an era where humans finally start to understand that proper stewardship of the environment is not a luxury but a necessity," said Richard Vigne, Managing Director of Ol Pejeta.
The story actually serves as a pretty good illustration of where humankind is at. We are myopic enough to be driving creatures great and small into extinction, yet smart enough to be able to perhaps bring some back from the brink. If we can keep nudging humanity towards the latter half of that equation, there may be hope for us yet ... northern white rhinos and all.