The African rhino is a seriously endangered species and one subspecies, the northern white rhinoceros, is on the brink of extinction. After the recent death of a female, only four northern white rhinos are still alive. Only one of them is a male. Scientists are using two distinct strategies to save them.
The biggest threat to rhinos are poachers who kill them for their horns. In spite of a lack of scientific proof, many in Vietnam and China believe that pills made of ground rhino horns can cure various diseases and disorders.
Since 2008, poachers in South Africa have killed almost 3,000 rhinos. The International Union for Conservation of Nature warns that they may become extinct before 2026.
The northern white rhinoceros, which actually is grey, is extinct in the wild. Only four animals of this subspecies remain and all of them are held in captivity – three females and the only male, called Sudan.
“If we lose him it will be a very big loss for the endangered species,” said Zachariah Mutahi, Sudan's caretaker.
Natural pregnancy and birth among the four are unlikely, so at Kenya’s Ol Pajeta Conservancy, scientists are trying to inseminate northern white rhino eggs in the lab and implant them in southern white rhino females.
Ol Pajeta Conservancy CEO Richard Vigne said, “The initial approach will be to look at in-vitro fertilization — removal of eggs from three remaining females and mixing those eggs with sperm stored from northern white rhinos across the world — to create an embryo which will then be implanted into a surrogate white rhino female to create a northern white rhino calf.”
Meanwhile, two U.S.-based scientists say they are using the latest biotechnology techniques to create artificial rhino horn — something that not only looks and feels like the real thing, but contains the same proteins.
“We are not bio-identical yet though that is the goal,” said Matthew Markus, Pembient CEO.
They hope that poachers will find it cheaper and safer to resell the lab-grown horns to their Asian customers as authentic, rather than to risk their lives or long prison sentences hunting for real rhinos.
No matter how they test the substance, customers will not be able to tell the difference. Researchers say flooding the market with artificial horns may keep the animals with the real horns safe from poachers.