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Kenya: Efforts to save the last northern white rhinos from extinction underway

By Tatianah Kiptoo,

NAIROBI – Scientists are planning to save the northern white rhinos from extinction through advanced reproductive techniques, including stem cell technology and In Vitro fertilization(IVF) after the death of last male sub-species who died at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

The rhino, famously known as Sudan, died at 45 on March 19 due to age-related diseases, leaving behind two females, currently the only remaining in the world.

The four species,two females and two males, were in December 2009 transferred to Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya, one of the largest black rhino sanctuaries in East Africa from Czech Republic with hopes that they will reproduce in a natural habitat given the favorable climatic conditions.

Five years later, one male died leaving behind Sudan who had a low sperm count while the two females Najin 27 has weak knees as a result of arthritis and can neither bear the weight of a mounting male nor that of pregnancy while Fatu is 17 and too, has weak knees and a uterine disorder that cannot allow for the embryo to be implanted successfully.

In a press statement yesterday, Ol Pejeta conservancy and the Dvůr Králové Zoo in Czech Republic, which hosted the white rhino sub-species before being Trans located to Kenya, eulogized Sudan in an emphatic statement adding that attempts to save the sub-species were in place.

“Additionally, his genetic material was collected yesterday and provides a hope for future attempts at reproduction of northern white rhinos through advanced cellular technologies. During his final years, Sudan came back to Africa and stole the heart of many with his dignity and strength,” the press statement.

The scientists are planning to extract eggs from the two female northern whites in May this year and although the procedure is the world’s first researchers plan to test the procedure on southern white rhinos.

The demand and extensive use of rhino horn as a traditional medicine in China, and more recently as a luxury cure for hangovers and other ailments in Vietnam, triggered a widespread growth in poaching, bringing about a sharp decline in numbers of all rhinos.

According to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, the procedure is expected to be done where scientists across the world will conduct the procedure.

Although no one has ever successfully used IVF on any rhino species, scientists hope that this will be the only solution to saving the northern white rhino species.

IVF requires specific conditions to mimic the uterine environment, and is estimated to take a lot of time as well as funding to get the results.

Other candidates too, from the southern white species, have been securely confined in to the endangered species enclosure awaiting the procedure that is expected to draw the global attention.

The procedure is however expected to be a success, if it overcomes challenging age factor and fertility issues.

The semen from male northern white rhinos who existed before, including Sudan’s long been collected and are being kept in specialized laboratories in Italy.

The semen will be used to create embryos that could be carried to term by surrogate rhino mothers.

“The semen have long been collected from other northern white rhinos before they died and the remaining procedure is to extract the eggs from the females and implanted on a surrogate southern white mother who will carry the pregnancy to full term,” Mr Zachary Mutai, a rhino caregiver at the conservancy.

The procedure of collecting eggs, will be a unique one where a team of specialists will conduct and thereafter the eggs will be flown within 24 hours to be stored in the specialized laboratories in Italy.

Although the scientists are hopeful, challenges are still expected.

The procedure that is expected to kick off in May will see the scientists taking cells from frozen rhino tissue and then reprogramme them into stem cells that could then be turned into sperm and eggs. Northern white rhino embryos could then be created from these.  The embryos will then be allowed to gestate in their southern surrogate mothers.

The procedure is expected to bring the northern white rhino back from extinction, scientists argue.

Sudan, will however be remembered for his unusually memorable life. In the 1970s, he escaped extinction of his kind in the wild when he was moved from Sudan to Czech. Throughout his existence, he significantly contributed to survival of his species as he sired two females-Najin and Fatu.

Sudan succumbed to age-related complications which the special team of veterinary officers who attended him said led to degenerative changes in muscles and bones combined with extensive skin wounds.

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