This Czech zoo is working to save near-extinct northern white rhinos via IVF

Only two northern white rhinos are left anywhere in the world, and efforts to save the species are underway

Raymond Johnston

Written by Raymond Johnston
Published on 26.08.2020 12:36 (updated on 26.08.2020)

The northern white rhinoceros is all but extinct, and Czech zoologists are working to preserve the species. Only two of these rhinos, both females, are left in the world. The only hope to keep the species going is through artificial means including in vitro fertilization and surrogates of a different subspecies.

“The next phase of the project to save the northern white rhino was successfully completed. Genetic material was taken from the females Fatu and Nájin, who lived in the Dvůr Králové Zoo. It will be used to reproduce the species through artificial insemination,” the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on social media.

This phase included harvesting 10 eggs from Fatu and Nájin. This is the third round of egg harvesting since August 2019. The previous round resulted in three fertilized eggs.

The procedure was done by a team from Germany’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and Zoo Dvůr Králové. “The ovum pickup went smoothly and without any complications,” they said in a joint statement. The two zoos have been cooperating on the project to save the rhinos since 2015.

Both female rhinos are currently on loan to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The last male of the species died in 2018.

The Ol Pejeta Conservancy explained the next step. The 10 northern white rhino eggs were sent to the Avantea clinic in Italy, where scientists will fertilize them with sperm from a northern white rhino bull. “The development of this project is creating hope for hundreds of other species who also lie on the brink of extinction,” the conservancy said.

The eggs will have to be placed in a surrogate, as neither of the remaining northern white rhinos can carry a baby to term. A southern white rhino in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy will be used as the surrogate. Until the eggs can be implanted, they will be stored in liquid nitrogen.

Dvůr Králové Zoo, also called Safari Park Dvůr Králové, is located in the Hradec Králové region and is the second largest zoo in the Czech Republic, after Prague Zoo. The zoo specializes is African wildlife, with the largest collection of African animals in Europe.

In December 2009, the zoo moved two male and two female northern white rhinos to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, hoping that breeding would be more successful in the natural habitat. Since then, both males have died. Suni passed away in 2014 due to old age. Sudan was euthanized in 2018 following complications to an infection to his hind leg.

A fifth rhino, a female named Nabire, stayed in Dvůr Králové, but passed away in 2015. Some of her eggs were harvested but due to a misunderstanding were fertilized with sperm from a southern white rhino.

The Dvůr Králové Zoo in 1975 acquired six northern white rhinos from Sudan and, later, two more from English zoos, including one that arrived pregnant. The zoo is the only one in the world where northern white rhinos have given birth, with the last calf, Fatu, born in 2000. In total, six northern white rhinos were born in the zoo since 1977.

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park in the United States also had some of the last examples of northern white rhinos, with their lat one passing away in 2015.