A Desperate, Last-Ditch Effort to Save the Final Five Northern White Rhinos

With only one male rhinoceros left, scientists race to develop in vitro fertilization techniques to ensure the survival of the species.

(Photo: Mark Carwardine/Getty Images)

Jan 29, 2015· 1 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

There are five northern white rhinos left in the world: Three live in a 700-acre reserve in Kenya, and the other two are in zoos in the Czech Republic.

The lone male is 43 years old—elderly in rhino years—and considered incapable of mating on his own.

As a species, they’re on their last legs. And at an emergency meeting Tuesday in Nairobi, Kenya, conservationists announced desperate measures to try to keep them from extinction.

The plan? Harvest the remaining eggs from the females, put them in a freezer that’s already storing northern white rhino sperm, and wait for technology to advance. The hope is that scientists will be able to artificially inseminate a female rhino with a fertilized egg.

So far, attempts at artificially inseminating northern white rhinos have failed. In the short term, the most likely outcome is the extinction of the species.

“The battle is to work out what is feasible scientifically in the short time still available to us,” Richard Vigne, chief executive of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, told AFP.

If the remaining females die, conservationists and scientists think using a surrogate southern white rhino female to carry a “test tube”–fertilized northern white rhino egg may be the species’ best bet.

Jan Stejskal of the Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, which owns two northern white rhinos, told BBC News that experts will “wait for a time when the IVF [in vitro fertilization] techniques will be developed and tested enough to give us a reasonable chance that usage of samples would lead to a successful embryo transfer.”

How did we get here?

The population has dwindled since 1960, when about 2,000 northern white rhinos roamed across Chad, the Central African Republic, southwestern Sudan, northeastern Zaire, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and northwestern Uganda. A combination of habitat loss and poaching cut the rhinos’ numbers down to 15 by 1984.