You know a species is in bad shape when the death of one of its members reduces the population by a fourth. That, unfortunately, is exactly what has happened in the case of Northern White Rhinos. Last year, the San Diego Zoo euthanised Nola, a 41-year old Northern White Rhinoceros, after her condition worsened due to a bacterial infection, leaving only 3 of them on the planet.
All 3 remaining members of the species, two of them female, currently live in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The major cause of worry is that are all the three are unable to reproduce. The only male, Sudan, which is protected round the clock by armed guards, has a low sperm count, and Najin and Fatu, the two females, are elderly and hence can’t reproduce. This has forced the officials to look for alternative ways to save them from extinction.
To help find a technique for rhino in-vitro fertilisation or stem cell technology, the conservationists have set up a GoFundMe page hoping to fund the research necessary to save the species. A team of experts from Leibniz-Institut für Zoo-und Wildtierforschung is already working on this with the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.
As a part of this plan, they aim to use the adult rhino skin to make stem cells. Lab-grown stem cells of this kind are pluripotent, which means they can make any type of cell from the body. Scientists hope to be able to create northern white rhino’s sperm and egg cells through this method. And then plant the fertilised eggs inside surrogate females from the closely related Southern White Rhino females. The San Diego Zoo has also set aside $2 million for the cause and they already have a collection of the suitable genetic material of the species.
The population of Northern White Rhinos have been falling in the last two decades due to habitat loss and poaching. Their horns are used for many purposes. As a status symbol in some societies, they are also used in traditional Asian medicines as a cure for hangover. According to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, a kilo of rhino horn sells for $60,000 on the black market.
As the future of this species hangs in balance, it should serve as a reminder to humanity to respect and protect all animals before it becomes too late.