In March of 2018, the last male northern white rhino passed away. Sudan was 45 years old and was put to sleep at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya after struggling with age-related health problems. This leaves only two females: Fatu and Najin. Is this species doomed?
Hunting and poaching caused the disappearance of the white rhino. In the colonial era, hunters went unchecked. White rhinos were easy to hunt because they have poor eyesight and are not known to be aggressive. Poaching for their horn also drove the species’ numbers down, so that the WWF declared the species extinct in the wild in 2008.
Now, with just two females who are both infertile, what can be done to save the rhinos? Scientists have the genetic material from male white rhinos and hope to create embryos with good characteristics for further breeding. The eggs came from southern white rhinos, which are doing much better than their northern counterpart. Trying the new procedure on Fatu and Najin was way too risky. Scientists needed a special device to very carefully extract the eggs and if they were to make a mistake, they could end up severing a major artery. The extraction succeeded, luckily. The eggs were then injected with the sperm of the white northern rhino, creating four viable early embryos.
The next step is to get eggs from Fatu and Najin and fertilize them with the northern white rhino sperm. Scientists are waiting on approval from Kenya. However, even if the two females produced offspring, it wouldn’t be enough to save the species. Another effort that involves “induced pluripotent stem cells” created from skin cells would produce the genetic diversity necessary to ensure survival. In other words, scientists are able to manipulate different cells into eggs and sperm!
Time is a factor as our gals Fatu and Najin aren’t getting any younger. Scientists hope to produce a rhino calf in three years using a surrogate. This puzzle of genetics could be the northern white rhino’s last chance.