A southern white rhino at the San Diego Zoo in California has become pregnant as a result of artificial insemination with sperm from a male southern white rhino. The development increases hopes that a nearly extinct close relative, the northern white rhino, can be saved.
News that the female southern white rhino named Victoria is pregnant is seen as a breakthrough, and a step toward saving the northern white rhino species. The pregnancy was confirmed last week. If Victoria is able to carry the calf to term, it will be born in about a year.
The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research issued a statement that said confirmation of this pregnancy through artificial insemination represented a “historic event” for the organization and was a critical step in the effort to save the northern white rhino.
The world’s last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died after age-related complications in March at Kenya's Ol Pejeta Conservancy, his home for 10 years after being transferred from a zoo in the Czech Republic. Sudan was 45 years old and had been in ailing health.
Sudan's death was seen as a tragedy, as it marked the possible end of a species.
Reproductive options for producing a northern white rhino include artificial insemination, in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, with the southern white rhinos possibly serving as surrogates for northern white rhino embryos.
The statement from the institute said researchers were optimistic that a northern white rhino calf could be born from these procedures within 10 to 15 years.
Kenya is home to the last remaining northern white rhinos, Sudan's daughter Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu.
The second-to-last male northern white rhino, Suni, died in 2014. Suni had also been brought back to Africa from the Czech Republic.
Sudan and Suni were too old to mate by the time they left Europe.
A team at Ol Pejeta is also working on a different project that seeks to save the northern white rhino from extinction.
Serve as surrogate
The plan is to harvest eggs from the two remaining northern white females. The animals cannot be artificially inseminated because they are infertile. Scientists intend to use an Ol Pejeta southern white rhino as a surrogate for northern white rhino eggs.
"Ol Pejeta is working on invitro fertilization," said Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
“There are two northern white rhino females left. Both are infertile — they cannot get pregnant. So, what we want to do is remove eggs from their ovaries. We want to take the eggs, and we want to fertilize them in a test tube with northern white rhino sperm to create an embryo which can then be implanted into southern white rhino females acting as surrogate mothers, to eventually produce a pure bred northern white rhino calf exactly as it happens in humans.”
Paul Gathitu, a Kenya Wildlife Service spokesman, said any news toward wildlife conservation is good news.
“Any indication that technology, science, will be able to propagate this creates hope, and particularly for animals that are on the extinction path,” Gathitu said. “For humanity, it’s a good sign. It means that there is a possibility we could turn to science and technology and see contributions toward conservation.”
Human big part of problem
Vigne said people have a responsibility to help save endangered species because humans are the top reason for endangerment.
“I think there is a bit of hope for the northern white rhino, but I think the important point that people need to understand is that it is not only the northern white rhino that is threatened by extinction,” Vigne said.
“There are thousands of other species across the planet that are currently facing extinction as a result of human activity. While we may be able to save the northern white rhino by spending a lot of money on it, the truth of the matter is, all of the other species that are threatened by extinction will go extinct unless the way that humans interact with our environment changes.”
Poaching has escalated in recent years and is being driven by the demand for Ivory. Rhino populations worldwide, in the meantime, continue to dwindle due to poaching.