Three years and 20 failed attempts later, the world's first test tube buffalo calf has been born on a dusty farm in Limpopo, a breakthrough in the fight to preserve endangered animals.
Pumelelo the buffalo calf entered the world on June 28, the first Cape buffalo conceived through in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
"This breakthrough is of great significance as it is the first of its kind in the world and holds great promise for the continued survival of endangered species," said Morné de la Rey, MD of Embryo Plus.
Pumelelo was born on the Lekkerleef Buffalo Ranch of Frans Stapelberg, near Marble Hall, Limpopo.
De la Rey said the process was not easy, but the success of the procedure would lay the foundation for the prospective breeding of endangered species.
"Extensive preliminary research was necessary to mature and fertilise the eggs, and to incubate the embryos to an advanced stage of development, as all species have different requirements for growth and utilise different nutrients during the laboratory phase of the largely uncharted path of IVF/IVP in African game species," De la Rey said.
The procedure was similar to ovum recovery in women undergoing IVF. The oocytes (egg cells) of a buffalo cow were collected using a technique called ovum pick-up, which took place with the cow under full anaesthesia.
A needle was guided trans-vaginally and ova (eggs) were aspirated from the ovaries, using ultrasound to visualise the process. The sedation went well and the buffalo cow incurred very little stress, he said.
The eggs were matured and fertilised in vitro with frozen-thawed Cape buffalo semen, then grown in a laboratory incubator, in a process known as in vitro production (IVP). After seven days, the embryo was transferred into a surrogate buffalo cow, Suri, who carried the foetus to term for 11 months.
The embryo could also have been transferred back to the donor cow.
De la Rey beamed with enthusiasm when he spoke about the possibility of using the method to reproduce rhino. He said the use of assisted reproductive techniques in wildlife management, although still in its infancy, was becoming more of a reality.
"We would love to go on to the rhino," he said.
At the moment there were only three northern white rhino left in the world: two cows and a 45-year-old sub-fertile bull, all in Kenya.
"They can't breed themselves naturally, so it's techniques like this that can help in their breeding and even in using the Southern white rhino from South Africa as surrogates for their embryos," De la Rey said.