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World’s first IVF rhino pregnancy could save species

The critically endangered northern white rhinoceros could be brought back from the brink of extinction after scientists successfully transferred a lab-created embryo into a surrogate mother.

At present, there exist only two infertile female northern white rhinoceros on Earth as a consequence of illegal poaching – fuelled by the demand for rhino horn – which has wiped out the wild population across central Africa.

They have been under 24-hour armed protection at a conservation site in Kenya since the last remaining male died in 2018 and the disappearance of the species began looking imminent.

A recent scientific advancement has provided a glimmer of hope that the pair may not be the last of their kind, however.

Achieving a huge breakthrough in the years-long effort to save the animal from extinction, an international team of researchers from BioRescue has just performed the world’s first-ever successful rhino pregnancy using in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

The process involved transferring a lab-created embryo into a surrogate mother of the closely-related southern subspecies. Because they’re so similar, say researchers, this has paved the way for the method to be used for its rarer northern counterpart.

‘To achieve the first successful embryo transfer in a rhino is a huge step,’ says Susanne Holtze, a scientist at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, which is part of the BioRescue project.

‘But now I think with this achievement, we are very confident that we will be able to create northern white rhinos in the same manner and that we will be able to save the species.’

As she explains, the endeavour has not been without its challenges: from working out how to collect eggs from the two-tonne animals, to creating the first-ever rhino embryos in a lab and establishing how – and when – to implant them.

‘It’s very challenging in such a big animal, in terms of placing an embryo inside the reproductive tract, which is almost 2m inside the animal,’ continues Holtze.

‘But we have to understand that man is behind the extinction of the northern white rhino. We are therefore responsible and if we actually have a technique that can assist us to save them, then I think we have a responsibility to use it and to try to save them.’

By mid-2024, the team plans to implant the first northern white rhino embryo, which was created using sperm gathered from two now-dead males and eggs gathered from one of the two remaining females.

There are only 30 of these precious embryos in existence, stored in -196°C liquid nitrogen in Germany and Italy. If the 16-month pregnancy is successful, it would be the first northern white rhino born since 2000.

‘Kenya Wildlife Service is delighted to have been part of this journey for the last 13 years, since the northern white rhinos were brought to Kenya in 2009, and for being part of the great initiative of the BioRescue consortium over the last four years,’ says director general of Kenya Wildlife Service, Erustus Kanga.

‘This is a great milestone in the preservation of the northern white rhino genetic lineage.’