On August 22, 2019, a team of veterinarians successfully harvested eggs from the last two remaining females of the Northern White Rhino species, who live in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. This procedure has never been attempted in northern white rhinos before. The eggs were transported to Avantea in Cremona and will now be artificially inseminated with frozen sperm from a northern white rhino bull, and in the near future the embryo will be transferred to a southern white rhino surrogate mother. The successful procedure was a joint effort by AVANTEA, the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) Berlin, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
The procedure was the result of years of research, development, adjustments and practice. “Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch”, says Prof. Thomas Hildebrandt from Leibniz-IZW. The procedure was conducted with a probe, guided by ultrasound, which harvested immature egg cells (oocytes) from the ovaries of the animals when placed under general anaesthetic.
“Yesterday’s operation means that producing a northern white rhino embryo in vitro – which has never been done before – is a tangible reality for the first time,” says Prof. Cesare Galli from Avantea, which is leading the development of the assisted reproduction techniques used to save the Northern White Rhino. Avantea will now fertilise the eggs in vitro using the cryo-preserved semen of Suni and Saút, aiming to produce a viable NWR embryo.
World first results in producing viable embryos and embryonic stem cell lines from the White Rhinoceros at Avantea were published last year in Nature Communications (see the article here)
These efforts are part of an international research project named “BioRescue”, in which Leibniz-IZW, Avantea, and Dvůr Králové Zoo participate, and which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). See the accompanying press release.
Photographs: Sean Viljoen, Jan Zwilling, Ami Vitale.