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Can IVF Save Kenya's White Rhino Population?

Kenyan Vets Turn to IVF to Save White Rhino From Extinction
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Kenyan Vets Turn to IVF to Save White Rhino From Extinction

At the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya there is a secure enclosure where the last two known female Northern White Rhinos are grazing peacefully. But their fate seems to be sealed. They can’t procreate any more since the last male Northern White Rhino, named Sudan, died last year.

His tomb is not far away from the enclosure in a windy field. It represents the obituary of a race that at one time, at the turn of the 20th century, numbered 3,000 animals.

Now with only two females left, the Ol Pejeta Conservancy has announced that veterinarians have extracted ova from the females to be inseminated with Northern White Rhino sperm collected earlier. The embryos would be inserted into the womb of a surrogate mother from a related rhino species.

Ol Pejeta is working in partnership with the Dvur Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic where these rhinos were born in captivity. The ten collected ova from the creatures were airlifted to the conservancy where they will be fertilized.

The vets hope to produce a pregnancy soon, but getting a calf will take time, says Jan Stejskal of the Dvur Králové Zoo.

“We have to take into account that the gestation period of a rhino is about 16 months. Even if we would succeed in let’s say one year, it would not be realistic to expect to have a Northern White Rhino baby born before three years,” Stejskal said.

The cost of the experiment was not disclosed, but the price is expected to be high. Ol Pejeta’s CEO, Richard Vigne, says the cost is worth it.

“We have it in our power, not only for the rhinos but also for other species as well to reverse this process. To live better with the planet, to live more in tune with our environment,” Vigne said.

Still, there is no guarantee the IVF method will work. Stejskal gives it 50 percent chance.

“We did really good progress and I think this process can give us optimism that we will be successful even in the next steps," Stejskal said.

It seems there is every reason to take the risk because when the two remaining Northern White Rhinos pass away, they will be buried next to Sudan, taking the species with them to the grave to be lost forever.