A trio of female southern white rhinoceroses at Longleat Safari Park is playing a crucial role in a desperate race against time to save the northern white rhino from extinction.
A team of international scientists is attempting to save the sub-species, which is down to its last two surviving individuals, from disappearing forever by using assisted reproductive technologies and stem-cell associated techniques.
Eggs collected from Razina, Ebun and Murashi at Longleat will be used as part of the ground-breaking scientific work to create viable northern white rhino offspring.
Initially it is hoped embryos created from their eggs will be implanted into surrogate southern white rhino mothers in the first stage of a plan which aims to effectively resurrect the northern white rhinos’ dying bloodline.
Longleat is the first UK-based zoological collection to be involved in this ground-breaking project, with a number of other zoos in mainland Europe also participating.
“The aim is to use eggs collected from our females, fertilise them in vitro, and then implant them into surrogate female southern white rhinos at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya,” said Longleat’s lead rhino keeper Leah Russell.
“If this proves successful, they will then attempt implanting 12 pure northern rhino embryos, which have been fertilised with frozen sperm from deceased males, into southern surrogates,” she added.
The BioRescue research consortium (www.biorescue.org) is being led by Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, who is head of the Department of Reproduction Management at Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and Professor of Wildlife Reproduction Medicine at Freie Universität Berlin.
“BioRescue is such a challenging and complex conservation science project. Therefore, it is really important that we are joined by competent international partners such as Longleat to master this ambitious mission,” said Professor Thomas Hildebrandt.
Once the eggs are extracted, Professor Hildebrandt and his team will have a race against time to get them back to the Avantea laboratory in Italy where they will be fertilised using sperm from a male white rhino, prior to being flown to Africa for the implantation procedures.
The northern white rhino is a subspecies of white rhino, which used to range over parts of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Years of widespread poaching and civil war in their home range have devastated northern white rhino populations, and they are now considered to be extinct in the wild.
The two surviving northern white rhinos Fatu and Najin, both females, live under 24-hour armed guard on the 360 km² Ol Pejeta Conservancy, near Mount Kenya.
Sudan, the last surviving male northern white rhinoceros, died of an age-related illness at Ol Pejeta on the 19th of March, 2018.
If the treatment proves successful it is hoped it could also be used, alongside conservation programmes, to help boost numbers of other highly endangered species.
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