Kenya: Hope as Scientists Expect White Rhino Calf in Two Years

A white rhino in the Lewa Conservancy (file photo).

A consortium of scientists and conservationists working to save the northern white rhino from extinction has expressed hope of having the first calf within two years.

The BioRescue consortium experts said they were using advanced reproduction technologies to raise the first offspring from nine unique embryos harvested from two surviving northern white rhinos in Kenya.

Project leader and head of Reproduction Management at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research Thomas Hildebrandt said they intend to transfer embryos into surviving southern white rhinos to act as surrogate mothers, paving the way for the birth of a new northern white rhino calf with the gestation of a rhino of 16 months.

There are five southern white rhinos in a protected enclosure at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. The enclosure has been kept empty for the purpose of the project.

Embryo transfer

"We hope to do the transfer of the embryo as fast as possible and we intend not to take longer than two years to have the calf," said Prof Hildebrandt at the German Ambassador to Kenya's residence on Monday.

The scientists had last year harvested 10 immature egg cells - two from Najin and eight from Fatu.

Najin and Fatur are the last two surviving northern white rhinos on the planet. However, neither is able to carry a pregnancy.

The oocytes - cells that undergo division to form an ovum - were immediately transported to Avantea laboratory in Cremona, Italy, under the leadership of Prof Cesare Galli, where embryos were formed following maturation and fertilisation of the oocytes with semen from Suni, a white rhino that died in 2014.

The project leader explained that the programme has been successful so far, presenting a chance to protect the rhinos from the threat of extinction.

10 years wait

He said the nine embryos are currently stored in liquid nitrogen and can wait for more than 10 years.

"We need a calf as soon as possible to have the two surviving ones transfer their knowledge of survival to the calf," he said.

This will then pave the way for the reintroduction of the northern white rhino into its natural habitat in the next 20 years using advanced technology and research.

The project, he said, would act as a blueprint to save other endangered species facing extinction as a result of human aggression and encroachment on their habitat.

German Ambassador to Kenya Annett Gunther said her country had pumped Sh523 million (4.2 Euros) into conservation of the white northern rhino through the BioRescue Consortium project.

Save many species

Ms Gunther said if the technology succeeds, it could save many other species that are on the verge of extinction.

"It is a perfect example of how international research and cooperation using advanced tech in species protection can address our common challenges including preservation of biodiversity, rapid population growth, climate change, conflicts and pandemic," said Ms Gunther.

For his part, Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) Director for Parks and Reserves Charles Musyoki said Kenya is the epicentre of the project, with 10 scientists from the country attached to the programme.

He said the success of the project would see Africa repopulated with the northern white rhino, which now faces extinction due to poaching activities of the past 40 years.

"There is a very good chance that we shall succeed and as a government, we shall continue to do all it takes to see to it that the first calf makes an appearance," he said.

Create a breeding herd

Ol Pejeta Conservancy Managing Director Richard Vigne said there is need to create a breeding herd of northern white rhinos as there is no way one calf is going to save the species.

He said a breeding herd is the only way to create a platform for the reintroduction of the species back into its natural habitat.

Mr Vigne expressed hope that the recovery journey can follow that of the Eastern Black Rhino, which is native to Kenya, whose number had plummeted to as low as 350 by the late 1980s, but which has a population of about 1,000, thanks to collaborative efforts between KWS and the private sector.

Mr Vigne pointed out the southern white rhinos had dwindled to about 50 at the turn of the last century but have since recovered to become the most populous rhino species on the planet.

"We hope this story is going to be repeated with the northern white rhino. We know it is going to be a long journey, but we are fully behind this project as rhinos are our signature species," said Mr Vigne.

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