The northern white rhino is quickly hurtling towards extinction. For many years. Animal poachers plinked them off one-by-one to cash in on their valuable horns, resulting in the dangerously tiny population that exists today.
Just three northern white rhinos remain in the entire world; one male and two females, but it seems unlikely that they will mate and produce offspring naturally. They live in captivity at Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, where they are heavily guarded to prevent them from being killed by poachers.
Image Credit: San Diego Zoo Safari Park/Facebook
Given the grim circumstances, experts are beginning to look for alternative ways to help the species reproduce before it’s too late. One way to go about it is to use to an assisted reproductive technology dubbed In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).
This procedure involves extracting egg cells from a female host and artificially fertilizing them with sperm cells in the lab. Everything happens outside of the female’s body up until an embryo is produced; once that happens, it’s planted inside a surrogate female’s uterus to continue development.
The plan is to extract egg cells from one or both remaining female northern white rhinos before the end of the year. Once in hand, an attempt will be made to fertilize them with sperm from the last remaining male and then grow an embryo. Experts will then take that embryo and implant it inside the uterus of a female southern white rhino, a close relative of the northern white rhino. Although the southern white rhino is similar to the northern white rhino, the two species are unique genetically.
A backup plan is also in place just in case things go horribly wrong. At least nine egg cells have already been extracted from a southern white rhino at Longleat Safari Park in England. If the initial attempt to fertilize northern white rhino eggs with northern white rhino sperm fails, it may be possible to fertilize the southern white rhino eggs with northern white rhino sperm instead. While producing a hybrid between the two species isn’t the optimal outcome, at least 50% of the northern white rhino’s DNA could live on even if all remaining specimens died out.
All outcomes are purely theoretical since IVF has never been used on a rhino species before. Nevertheless, if we are to save a dying species, it seems to be worth a try.
Using artificial means of supplementing animal conservation efforts isn’t a new idea. While there are some ethical decisions to be made if things don’t quite go as planned, it could be the only way to save the northern white rhino from what looks like imminent extinction, and perhaps other animal species on the brink could benefit from this technology too.
Right now, there's not much anyone can do besides hope for the best. It's both a waiting game and a game of chance.