After a hiatus of a few months owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the international team of scientists and conservationists continued its ambitious programme to save the northern white rhino from extinction:
On August 18, 2020 they harvested ten eggs from the last remaining two individuals, Najin and Fatu, in the third-ever ovum pickup procedure in northern white rhinos, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. With great support from the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the team from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and Czech Safari Park Dvůr Králové overcame substantial challenges to perform this important procedure in such critical times. Preparations for the next steps in the programme – the generation and transfer of embryos – are underway, ensuring that everything is done to make the best possible progress to save the northern white rhino from the brink of extinction.
BioRescue team conducting the third ovum pickup procedure. | Photo by Rio The Photographer / Ol Pejeta
Twelve months after the ground breaking first “ovum pickup” in August 2019 and eight months after the second, the team repeated the procedure with northern white rhinos Najin and Fatu on August 18, 2020, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The animals were placed under general anaesthetic and ten immature egg cells (oocytes) – two from Najin and eight from Fatu – were harvested from the ovaries using a probe with a movable needle guided by ultrasound. The anaesthesia and the ovum pickup went smoothly and without any complications. The oocytes were airlifted immediately to the Avantea Laboratory in Italy. In the coming days they will be incubated and matured and fertilised with sperm from already deceased northern white rhino bulls – hopefully leading to viable northern white rhino embryos that will be stored in liquid nitrogen alongside the three embryos generated during the previous procedures.
This procedure was conducted several months behind the original schedule of BioRescue, the international consortium led by the Leibniz-IZW and partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the project and its partners: travel restrictions and contact prohibitions prevented work from taking place in European zoos and Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Partner organisations such as Safari Park Dvůr Králové and Ol Pejeta Conservancy faced – and continue to face – an existential threat as they largely depend on tourism. In several ways, the current COVID-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented threat to wildlife conservation. It is the hope and the will of all partners of the northern white rhino rescue programme to continue its mission against the odds. Since the northern white rhino offspring that will hopefully arise from the programme shall grow up in the company of Najin and Fatu and Najin is approaching old age, there is no time to lose.
Preparations for the next steps of the mission are underway. The plan is to select a group of southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy from which a female would be selected to serve as surrogate mother for the northern white rhino embryo. Additionally, the partners agreed on the procedure of sterilising a southern white rhino bull. This bull, which has already produced many offspring, is crucial to indicate oestrus and to create an ideal hormonal environment in the potential surrogates. To achieve the best possible results for work with pure northern white rhino embryos, the team relies on experience from similar embryo transfer procedures in southern white rhinos that have been performed in order to address reproduction challenges in European zoos.