95. Bringing Rhinos Back from the Dead

In 2008, Africa’s Northern White Rhinos were considered extinct in the wild.
In the years that followed, the situation got worse.
But scientists had a plan.

PHASE 1: GATHER UP THOSE THAT REMAIN

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy, at the base of Mt. Kenya, houses the only 2 remaining Northern White Rhinos in the world: Fatu, 30, and her daughter Najin, 19.

They live there under 24-hour armed guard.

Source: Ol Pejeta Facebook Page, Releasing Fatu out into her ancestral grounds.

In 2009, they were moved to Ol Pejeta, along with two males, Suni and Sudan, from a zoo in the Czech Republic.
Of the eight Northern Whites left in the world, these four rhinos were thought to be the most fertile.

The rhinos were packed in special wooden crates built to support their weight for the flight to Kenya.

But first they had to be crate trained so that they’d enter the crates on their own. Those of us with dogs know how easy that must have been!

The rhinos were moved to the conservancy in hopes that a natural environment would encourage them to mate and reproduce.
They did mate. They did not reproduce.

Source: Twitter, Peter and Jacob with Najin and Fatu



It was discovered that neither of the females were able to carry a calf.
Fatu has degenerative lesions in her uterus and Najin has weak hind legs which could cause complications if she became pregnant.

Wildlife ranger Zacharia Mutai comforts Sudan, the last male northern white rhino, moments before he passed away. Photo by Ami Vitale

A final blow was delivered in 2018 when Sudan, the last remaining male, had to be euthanized.

While Sudan’s death was devastating, scientists were prepared.
An international consortium of scientists and conservationists had been collecting and freezing semen from Northern White Rhino bulls for years.

Source: Nat’l Geographic, Partially anesthetized, Fatu is guided gently onto a soft sand bedding before being fully anesthetized for the procedure.

At the same time, the team was devising an in vitro fertilization process for the endangered whites (where an egg and sperm are fertilized outside the body).

This was an amazing undertaking. Artificial insemination had successfully produced white rhino calves, but in vitro fertilization had never been completed with rhinos before. 

PHASE TWO: HARVESTING THE EGGS

In August of last year, the team was able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes (immature eggs), five from Najin and five from Fatu. Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch. The cost in time and research was in the millions of euros.

Source: BBC.com

The eggs, which cannot be frozen, were immediately flown to a laboratory in Italy to eventually be fertilized with the frozen sperm from four deceased males.

PHASE THREE: FERTILIZING EGGS

From the ten eggs, two embryos were created in September 2019, and the third was created in December. The embryos are being stored in liquid nitrogen, with conservationists planning to implant them in a southern white rhino surrogate mother in the future.

PHASE FOUR: SET THE STAGE FOR A ROMANTIC ENCOUNTER

One of the things the scientists are struggling to work out is the timing to implant the embryo. They need to know exactly when the female’s body is best ready for the embryo to attach to the uterus lining.

Scientists are hoping that the chances of the surrogate carrying the pregnancy through to birth may be increased if they implant the embryo right after she has mated.

An adolescent southern white rhino rolls in mud at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya
Source: Ol Pejeta Website

This hunch has led them to set the scene for the next stage in their elaborate plan. 
Four wild female southern white rhinos have been enclosed with their offspring in their natural habitat.

The next step is to put a sterilized southern white rhino in with the females (would-be surrogates). As soon as they see the sterilized bull mounting, they dart the female, put the embryo in and hope for the best.

A female southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya
one of these rhinos could stop a species from going extinct

In the best case scenario, only a handful of calves may be born from Najin and Fatu’s eggs, and the lack of genetic diversity between the half-siblings could make it impossible to create a viable breeding population. 
To tackle that problem, stem cell research will have to be done, and that brings up the question of medical ethics. Nothing is easy about this entire operation.

If all this work miraculously produces babies, the first northern white rhino to be born should be named Lazarus.

Who woulda thunk it?