Northern white rhino embryo could save all-female subspecies from extinction © Ben Curtis/AP

Northern white rhino embryo could save all-female subspecies from extinction

Frozen sperm from a dead male has been used to create an embryo which, it is hoped, will be carried by a surrogate.

Researchers say they have successfully created another embryo of the nearly extinct northern white rhino in a global effort to keep the species alive. Just two members of the subspecies remain, and both are female.

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The viable embryo is just the third to be created in a lab with eggs taken from the females and inseminated with frozen sperm from dead males, according to Wednesday’s statement. The embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen to be transferred into a surrogate mother, a southern white rhino, in the coming months.

“It’s amazing to see that we will be able to reverse the tragic loss of this subspecies through science,” said Kenya’s wildlife minister, Najib Balala, in the statement by the Kenya Wildlife Service and conservationists from Kenya, the Czech Republic, Germany and Italy.

The ultimate goal is to create a herd of at least five animals that could be returned to their natural habitat in Africa, but that could take decades. The two remaining female northern white rhinos, Najin and Fatu, are hosted by Kenya. The three viable embryos have been created with eggs from Fatu.

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“Now the team will make every effort to achieve the same result for the 30-year-old Najin before it is too late for her,” said Thomas Hildebrandt with the Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research in Germany.

The procedure has proven to be safe and can be performed regularly before the animals become too old, the new statement said. The next step is to select female southern white rhinos among those at Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy to serve as a surrogate mother, Kenya’s wildlife minister said.

Female northern white rhinos Fatu, 19, right, and Najin, 30, left, the last two northern white rhinos on the planet © Ben Curtis/PA
Female northern white rhinos Fatu, 19, right, and Najin, 30, left, the last two northern white rhinos on the planet © Ben Curtis/PA

Decades of poaching have taken a heavy toll on rhino species. The animals are killed for their horns, which have long been used as carving material and prized in traditional Chinese medicine for their supposed healing properties.

The last male northern white rhino was a 45-year-old named Sudan, who gained fame in 2017 when he was listed as The Most Eligible Bachelor In The World on the Tinder dating app as part of a fundraising effort.

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Sudan, named for the country where he was born in the wild, was euthanised in 2018 because of age-related ills.

Reader Q&A: How does trophy hunting affect wild animal populations?

Asked by: Steven White, Bromley

Since the days of the Roman Empire, wild animals have been slaughtered to prove power and wealth. Bigger is better when it comes to this ‘sport’, which means that dominant, mature male rhinos, elephants, lions, leopards and other animals are the prime targets of hunters.

The artificially premature loss of strong, healthy individuals takes vital genes out of the breeding pool which, over time, can result in an overall decline in body size and, where applicable, also horn or tusk size.

Removing these frontline animals also undermines social cohesion and can leave members of prides and herds vulnerable to attack by other members of their own species. Although some argue that money from trophy hunting can help with conservation, there is not enough evidence to convince us that it can.

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