‘Test Tube Rhinos’ Might Save Endangered Species

In Vitro Fertilization is an assisted reproductive technology (ART) commonly referred to as IVF. It’s the process of extracting eggs, retrieving a sperm sample, and then manually combining the two to start the gestation process in a test tube.

In 1978, the first successful birth of a human by IVF was conducted. The female child, Louise Brawn was born in the U.K.. Flash forward almost 40 years and IVF is being tested again in England — but this time with an endangered wildlife species —  the rhinoceros.

Rhinos may get a new lease on life . . .

What could be the world’s first test tube rhinos may be born at Longleat Safari Park, based on a groundbreaking initiative kickstarted by zoologists this year. This breakthrough is even more meaningful because rhinoceros are an endangered species.

The research team involved have collected nine eggs from the park’s three southern white rhinos, who have failed to mate with their only male.

This purpose of the project is to save the northern white rhinos that reside in the park. Only three animals still exist in the wild, one male and two females, but they are now too old to breed.

The scientists conjectured that it may be possible to take the eggs and sperm from the surviving rhinos and create an embryo, which would be planted in the surrogate mother.

If at first you don't succeed . . .

If that plan fails, the team will attempt to mix the sperm from the last male northern white rhino with Longleat’s females, to create a hybrid which could save 50 per cent of its DNA.

"Effectively the female rhinos would act as IVF mothers, with embryos partly derived from northern white male sperm,” added Darren Beasley, head of animal operations at Longleat.

"If the procedure works, the hope would be that southern white females would carry the developing embryos for up to 18 months before giving birth."

The Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, which owns the animals, has contacted zoos and safari parks around Europe asking for eggs to help them revive the animals, and Longleat is the first in Britain to sign up for the program.

Kenyan Rhinos

Later this year, the researchers will also harvest eggs from the last two female northern white rhinos residing in Kenya.

Although closely aligned genetically, southern and northern white rhinos are evolution-wise two distinct sub-species which are thought to have diverged from each other approximately on million years ago.

As their name suggests southern white rhino populations are concentrated in the south of Africa where their current wild numbers are estimated at around 20,000.

“We are grateful that Longleat joined the program to save the northern white rhino,” said Jan Stejskal, Coordinator of the efforts to save the northern white rhino from Dvůr Králové Zoo.

The long and short of this research . . .

“If the treatment proves successful it is hoped it could be used, alongside conservation programs, to help boost numbers of other highly endangered species,” noted the Telegraph’s science editor, Sarah Knapton.