White rhino IVF success could save them from extinction

Due poachers killing northern white rhinos for their horns, this subspecies is close to extinction.

White rhino IVF success could save them from extinction
A 3D model of a 70-days-old southern white rhinoceros foetus is displayed during a press conference, following the world's first successful embryo transfer through the gut into a southern white rhinoceros female cow, which is a breakthrough for a team of international scientists in their work to save the northern white rhino from extinction, at Tierpark Zoo in Berlin, Germany January 24, 2024. The world's only two known northern white rhinos are living in Kenya. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Due to poachers killing northern white rhinos for their horns, this subspecies is close to extinction, with the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, dying in 2018. Only his mate and offspring, two naturally infertile females, Fatu and Najin, are still alive and under 24-hour armed protection at a conservation reservation in Kenya. But the first successful in vitro fertilization (IVF) treatment in their southern counterpart could save the northern white rhino from going extinct.

A team of international researchers from BioRescue, a collection of companies backed by the German government that aims to stop extinctions, had their first success in September 2023 after transferring two southern white rhino embryos into a surrogate. Sadly, the father and 70-day pregnant mother died after contracting a rare unrelated bacterial infection, but this gave the group proof that this method could work. 

Thomas Hildebrandt, the BioRescue project head and professor at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, told The Guardian: “This little baby is the proof of everything … the sperm injection, the fertilization, the liquid nitrogen, the thawing – this was never done before for rhinos. All of it could have failed.”

Despite the lack of male northern white rhinos, sperm was gathered from two males who are now dead. With that sperm and eggs from Fatu, they can create embryos. By May or June, scientists plan to transfer an embryo into a southern white rhino surrogate in Kenya. If it’s successful, it would be the first northern white rhino born since 2000.

On Wednesday BioRescue said in a statement, “The successful embryo transfer and pregnancy are a proof of concept and allow (researchers) to now safely move to the transfer of northern white rhino embryos — a cornerstone in the mission to save the northern white rhino from extinction,”

Hildebrandt expressed that even if northern white rhino calves are born there won’t be enough genetic diversity to produce a viable population because the remaining 30 embryos are all from Fatu and two males. But, this can be fixed later with gene editing and genetic material from museum samples. 

So after many years, there’s hope that the northern white rhino species can in fact be saved!