Northern white rhino rescue programme resumes work with successful egg harvest

Najin and Fatu at Ol Pejeta. Photo by Kilimo News
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After a few months hiatus owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the international team of scientists and conservationists was able to continue its ambitious programme to save the northern white rhino from extinction. On August 18, 2020 they harvested 10 eggs from the last remaining two individuals, Najin and Fatu, in the third-ever ovum pickup procedure in northern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

 With great support from the Kenya Wildlife Service and Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the team from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo-and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and Czech Safari Park Dvůr Králové overcame substantial challenges to perform this important procedure in such critical times. Preparations for the next steps in the programme – the generation and transfer of embryos – are underway, ensuring that everything is done not to lose any more precious time saving the northern white rhinos from the brink of extinction.

“The progress made so far in the northern white rhino assisted reproduction project is very encouraging, and we look forward to the transfer of the already developed embryos into southern white rhino surrogate females here at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. This project should galvanize the world’s attention to the plight of endangered species and make us avoid actions that undermine law enforcement and fuel demand for the rhino horn” says Najib Balala, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife.

Germany’s Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek: “Biodiversity forms the foundation of our very existence. But it is increasingly threatened by the destruction of natural habitats, environmental pollution and climate change. The northern white rhinoceros has become a symbol for our joint efforts to fight the loss of biological diversity. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research supports this rhino conservation work through the funding it provides for the BioRescue project, which is part of the Research Initiative for the Conservation of Biodiversity. We are extremely grateful for the support we have received from the Kenyan government as partners in our efforts to save the northern white rhino. Thanks to the tremendous commitment shown by all involved, we now have the chance to save this animal from the threat of extinction.”  

Twelve months after the ground breaking first “ovum pickup” in August 2019 and eight months after the second, the team repeated the procedure with northern white rhinos Najin and Fatu on August 18, 2020, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The animals were placed under general anaesthetic and 10 immature egg cells (oocytes) – two from Najin and eight from Fatu – were harvested from the animals’ ovaries using a probe with a movable needle guided by ultrasound. The anaesthesia and the ovum pickup went smoothly and without any complications. The oocytes were airlifted immediately to the Avantea Laboratory in Italy. In the coming days they will be incubated and matured, fertilized with sperm from already deceased northern white rhino bulls – hopefully leading to viable northern white rhino embryos that will be stored in liquid nitrogen alongside the three embryos generated in the previous procedures.

This procedure was conducted several months behind the original schedule of BioRescue, the international consortium led by the Leibniz-IZW and partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the project and its partners: travel restrictions and contact prohibitions prevented work from taking place in European zoos and Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Partner organisations such as Safari Park Dvůr Králové and Ol Pejeta Conservancy faced – and continue to face – an existential threat as they largely depend on tourism. In various ways, the current crisis poses an unprecedented threat to wildlife conservation. It is the hope and the will of all partners of the northern white rhino rescue programme to continue its mission against all odds. Since the northern white rhino offspring that will hopefully arise from the programme shall grow up in the company of Najin and Fatu and Najin is approaching old age, there is no more time to be lost.

Preparations for the next steps of the mission are underway simultaneously to the generation of embryos. The plan is to select a group of southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy from which a female could serve as surrogate mother for the northern white rhino embryo. Additionally, the partners agreed on the procedure of sterilizing a southern white rhino bull. This bull, which has already produced multiple offspring, is crucial to indicate oestrus and to create an ideal hormonal environment in the potential surrogates. To achieve the best possible results for work with pure northern white rhino embryos, the team relies on experience from similar embryo transfer procedures in southern white rhinos that have been performed in order to address reproduction challenges in European zoos.

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