Breakthrough first rhino IVF pregnancy inspires hope for nearly-extinct northern white rhino

It’s heartbreaking to think about an animal species going extinct. Wildlife researchers and conservationists do everything they can to save and repopulate these species while they still can.

Saving the nearly-extinct northern white rhino, however, is a true challenge: there are only two individuals left, and both are female.

But now, there has been a scientific breakthrough that is inspiring hope that these rhinos could be saved from extinction.

NANYUKI, KENYA – 2018/03/20: Two white northern and one white southern female rhinos are grazing. To spot the difference between the species check their ears. With the death of Sudan, there are only two remaining northern white rhino alive. Called Najin and Fatu, they spend their lives living in protected area of Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where the ‘Caretakers’ sort of armed nature rangers are protecting them. (Photo by Jan Husar/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The white rhino, the largest land mammal after the elephant, has faced critical population loss due to poaching, according to the International Rhino Foundation.

The northern white rhino, one of the two subspecies, is considered extinct in the wild, and there are only two individuals left.

Those rhinos, Fatu and Najin, reside in a 700-acre enclosure at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Due to their extreme rarity and the threat of poachers, they are protected by a 24/7 armed guard.

Fatu and Najin were among the world’s last seven northern white rhinos who arrived at the sanctuary in 2009, with the hopes that the rhinos would be able to produce offspring and keep the species alive.

But those attempts proved unsuccessful, and were dashed when Sudan, the last male of the species, died in 2018.

It was also found that neither Fatu nor Najin were capable of natural reproduction. But there was one possibility left: In vitro fertilisation.

For years, IVF has been considered the last hope to save the northern white rhino. It’s an expensive, complex procedure that had never been attempted on rhinos.

But now, there has been a breakthrough: BioRescue Project, a reproduction technology nonprofit focused on saving threatened species, has achieved the first successful embryo transfer in rhinos, according to a Facebook post.

The company collected egg cells and sperm from southern white rhinos and transferred them into a southern white rhino surrogate mother, and 70 days later confirmed a pregnancy.

The successful procedure has ignited hopes that they can safely transfer northern white rhino embryos and create a surrogate pregnancy via IVF, allowing the nearly-extinct subspecies to reproduce.

This IVF procedure was a “proof of concept” to prove that it could be done, but only time will tell if they will be able to successful produce a northern white rhino offspring. But for now, hope is alive again.

What an amazing breakthrough! We’re one step closer to this technology being used to save the northern white rhino from extinction!

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