Embryos boost hopes of saving northern white rhino

Scientists racing to pull the northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction have produced two more embryos from egg cells harvested in Kenya, increasing the total number of viable embryos produced so far to five.

It's meant a happy end to what was a difficult 2020, when international travel restrictions forced scientists to delay some key procedures and could have jeopardized the pioneering conservation project.

[Thomas Hildebrandt, Head of Reproduction Management at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, saying:] "2020 was really a harsh provement for all of us"

Thomas Hildebrandt is Head of Reproduction Management at Germany's Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, which is leading the BioRescue international project.

"So we had these obstacles, all these problems, but at the end we managed to go back to Kenya and be successful. So Christmas gave us a present: two embryos. And we are extremely happy about that."

The northern white rhino is critically endangered. The last male died in Kenya's Ol Pejeta conservancy in 2018 and the last two surviving animals are mother and daughter Najin and Fatu who are both infertile.

In December BioRescue harvested egg cells which were fertilized with frozen sperm from dead males.

The embryos will be transferred into a surrogate mother, for which BioRescue plans to use the southern white rhino, a subspecies numbering about 18,000.

"We are quite under time constraint because we want really a transfer of the social knowledge from the last existing northern white rhinos to a calf."

The team hopes to deliver their first northern white rhino calf in three years and a wider population in the next two decades.

Video Transcript

- Scientists racing to pull the northern white rhino back from the brink of extinction have produced two more embryos from egg cells harvested in Kenya, increasing their total number of viable embryos to five. It's meant a happy end to what was a difficult 2020 when international travel restrictions forced scientists to delay some key procedures and could have jeopardized the pioneering conservation project.

THOMAS HILDEBRANDT: 2020 was really a harsh provement for all of us.

- Thomas Hildebrandt is head of reproduction management at Germany's Leibnitz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, which is leading the BioRescue international project.

THOMAS HILDEBRANDT: So we had these obstacles, we had all these problems, but at the end, we managed to go back to Kenya and be successful, so Christmas Eve gave us a present-- two embryos, and we are extremely happy about that.

- The northern white rhino is critically endangered. The last male died in Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2018, and the last two surviving animals are mother and daughter, Najin and Fatu, who are both infertile. In December, BioRescue harvested egg cells, which were fertilized with frozen sperm from dead males. The embryos will be transferred into a surrogate mother, for which BioRescue plans to use the southern white rhino, a subspecies numbering about 18,000.

THOMAS HILDEBRANDT: We are quite under time constraint, because we want, really, a transfer of the social knowledge from the last two existing northern white rhinos to a calf.

- The team hopes to deliver their first northern white rhino calf in three years and a wider population in the next two decades.