In Last-Ditch Effort, Scientists Create Embryos of Almost Extinct Rhinos

©. A park ranger stands next to Najin at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2015. (TONY KARUMBA/AFP/Getty Images)

There are only two northern white rhinos left, and they are both female; but now scientists have created two viable embryos and there is hope.

It's not exactly the stuff of romantic comedies, wildlife-style. There was no courtship dancing in the grasslands (rhinos actually whistle and wrestle while courting, but that's a different story). There was no choosing mates, and there wasn't even any good old-fashioned mating at all.

But when there's only two females of a species left, you do what you have to do. Which in the case of the northern white rhino means you harvest eggs, introduce them to some frozen sperm from the now-dead last male rhinos, and hope for a viable embryo to transfer to a surrogate rhino mama.

As of last month, we had gotten to the "successful egg harvest and fertilization" part. Now the incredible effort is one step closer with the announcement that two of the eggs have graduated to viable embryos.

“We brought ten oocytes back from Kenya, five from each female. After incubation seven matured and were suitable for fertilization,” said Cesare Galli, a professor based at the Avantea Laboratories in Cremona, Italy.

Sperm from the now -deceased Suni and Saut was injected into the eggs and two developed into viable embryos.

The eggs came from the species last two ladies, Najin and Fatu. Born in the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, they were transferred to the Ol ­Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2009 with two males in hope of some good matchmaking and babymaking. Alas, there was no chemistry, and eventually the males passed on. The last male of the species, Sudan, died in 2018.

Once found all across the grasslands of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the species has been nearly obliterated thanks to rampant poaching and civil war. China, Vietnam, and other nations have a lust for rhino horn because they think it cures disease. For the record, it does not.

I have heard people complain that humans shouldn't be in the business of creating rhino babies in the lab. I contend that humans shouldn't be in the business of decimating entire species of megafauna – the least we can do is try some last-ditch efforts to same these giant beauties from extinction. And if we can get that far, then we need to learn from our abysmal behavior and ensure that it doesn't happen again.

As Richard Vigne, managing director of Ol ­Pejeta Conservancy, says, “Global human behavior still needs to radically change if the lessons of the northern white rhinos are to be learned.” Are we up to the challenge?