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Conservationists Use Science to Preserve Rare Species of Rhino

Can Science Save a Rhino on Brink of Extinction?
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Can Science Save a Rhino on Brink of Extinction?

Wildlife conservationists in Kenya are scrambling to save a rare species of rhinoceros that has been hunted and poached to the brink of extinction. With just five of the animals left in the world, caretakers hope that through reproductive science they may be able to preserve the gene pool before it is gone forever.

The northern white rhino - that once roamed a territory stretching from Uganda through the Democratic Republic of Congo and as far north as Chad - could disappear within our lifetimes.

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy in central Kenya is home to three of these animals. Under the watch of armed guards, they meander easily across a natural expanse of grass and shrubs, and rub and play and eat with groups of southern white rhinos - their close genetic cousins.

The rhinos came to Kenya from a zoo in the Czech Republic, with the hope that the species would thrive in a more natural habitat.

But that optimism has not been met with breeding success, and the population is dwindling fast.

One of the rhinos here, Suni, unexpectedly died in October. A zoo in the U.S. city of San Diego lost another in mid-December.

San Diego still has one left, as does the zoo in the Czech Republic.

But the last wild population, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, was wiped out during armed conflicts in the last decade.

Killings of all types of rhinos across Africa have been driven by Asian demand, due to the mistaken belief that the horns have medicinal properties.

Mohammed Doyo, caretaker to these animals since they first arrived at the conservatory in 2009, files down the rhinos' at Ol Pejeta horns to make them less enticing to poachers. He also had a chance to lobby on behalf of the rhinos to a visiting Chinese basketball legend.

“There was a guy here by the name [of] Yao Ming. He was doing a documentary telling the China people they should stop believing the horn of the rhino is medicine. Instead of that, I told him, they should use their fingernails or hair, because it's one material,” said Doyo.

Sudan, the last male of the species, is 41 years old, and his past attempts at mating were unsuccessful.

So now conservationists will try to artificially impregnate a young, fertile female.

If that does not work, they will try in-vitro fertilization, possibly using a southern white rhino as a kind of surrogate mother.

The last solution would be cross-breeding between the two species, which are physically and genetically similar.

“It's about preserving those genetic traits which confer upon the northern white as a species or subspecies, whatever you want to call it, the ability to live in Central Africa with all the disease and habitat challenges that presents. And those genetic traits could be preserved as part of a hybrid with a southern white, but as long as they're there, then one day, hopefully, maybe in a hundred years’ time, we'll be able to reintroduce rhinos into that part of Africa,” said Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta.

The fact of the matter is the northern white rhino gene pool has been depleted to the point that preserving the animal as a unique species is quite a long shot.

Vigne said this effort is not just about saving one type of rhino.

“We're keen to make the point that if human beings continue to treat the planet in the way that they're treating it, this isn't going to be the only mammalian species that goes extinct in the next few years. That's going to happen more and more and more,” he said.

Vigne said the process is expected to get underway in January, with the assistance of experts from the Czech zoo where they came from.

The good news is that southern white rhino populations have rebounded in the last century since being pushed to the brink of extinction themselves.

If cross-breeding is successful, there is hope that some trace of the otherwise-doomed northern white species may still live on.