In Pictures: Inside the Quest to Save the Northern White Rhino

When the northern white rhinos Najin, Fatu, Suni and Sudan were brought to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2009, the hope was that their return to their natural habitat could help them regain their zest for life and encourage reproduction.

Little went as planned. The four imported rhinos mated, but to no avail.

Why we wrote this

Kenya’s increased protection of its overall rhino population has led to a steady increase in numbers. But for the northern white rhino, efforts beyond conservation are urgently needed.

Now Najin and Fatu, both females, are the only remaining northern white rhinos. Conservation alone can no longer save the species.

Enter scientists from the international BioRescue consortium, which is developing techniques to resuscitate northern white rhinos, including in vitro fertilization. In the lab of a consortium partner, the sperm of the deceased male, Suni, was injected into Fatu eggs, creating 12 northern white rhino embryos.

The plan is to transfer the embryos to southern white rhino surrogates. “One man and one woman are not enough to foster a self-sufficient population,” says consortium researcher Cesare Galli. “If we create four embryos a year, that’s 16 in just four years. If we achieve a 50% success rate, we will have eight new animals. With this number, we are not exactly able to fully repopulate Kenya, but it is a start.

With the help of scientists, the northern white rhino could still be brought back from the brink.

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The last two remaining northern white rhinos are kept behind electrified fences and protected by a squad of rangers at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Up close, females Fatu and Najin do not appear to be fazed by the broader implications of their subspecies’ impending extinction as a result of widespread poaching, habitat loss, and wars.

Their nights are spent in their cozy enclosures covered with straw among the hissing thorns. From around 6 a.m. to 9 a.m., they can be found grazing in their approximately 1 square mile enclosure.

Najin and Fatu were born at Safari Park Dvu˚r Králové, a zoo in the Czech Republic. Both descend from the last male northern white rhino, named Sudan: Najin is his daughter, while Fatu is his granddaughter.

Why we wrote this

Kenya’s increased protection of its overall rhino population has led to a steady increase in numbers. But for the northern white rhino, efforts beyond conservation are urgently needed.

The two of them, along with Sudan and a male named Suni, were transferred to Ol Pejeta in 2009, in the hope that their return to their natural habitat could help them regain their zest for life and encourage reproduction. .

Little went as planned. The four imported rhinos mated, but to no avail. In 2014, Suni passed away from natural causes. In 2018, Sudan, the last white man in the north standing, was euthanized after a series of health problems.

Kenya has the second largest rhino population in the world, behind South Africa. The species include the smaller black rhino and two subspecies of the white rhino – northern and southern. Overall, Kenya’s approach to animal conservation has proven to be successful. In recent years, the southern black and white rhino population has been slowly increasing each year. Last year, the Kenya Wildlife Service reported that no rhinos had been killed in the country. Researchers say the improvements are due to a combination of factors, including better training for rangers, better animal tracking and stricter laws that provide for long prison terms and fines of $ 200,000 for convicted poachers.

But conservation alone cannot save the species. Enter scientists from the international BioRescue consortium, which is developing techniques to resuscitate northern white rhinos, including in vitro fertilization. In the laboratory of a consortium partner, the Avantea company, the sperm of the deceased male, Suni, was injected into Fatu eggs, creating 12 northern white rhino embryos. Embryos are stored at minus 196 degrees Celsius at Avantea’s facilities in Cremona, Italy.

The plan is to transfer the embryos to southern white rhino surrogates. “One man and one woman are not enough to foster a self-sufficient population,” says Cesare Galli, founder and CEO of Avantea. “If we create four embryos a year, that’s 16 in just four years. If we achieve a 50% success rate, we will have eight new animals. With this number, we are not exactly able to fully repopulate Kenya, but it is a start.

Southern white rhinos faced a similar situation. But after the South African government placed them under special protection, their numbers soared to over 20,000. With the help of scientists, the white rhinos of northern Kenya could still be brought back from the brink.

At the Avantea laboratory in Cremona, Italy, scientists are fighting against time to create the first baby northern white rhino through in vitro fertilization.

Of the 16 rhinos buried here, only two died of natural causes; the others were slaughtered by poachers for their horns.

Najin and his daughter Fatu, along with their companion Tauvo, a southern white rhino, walk through their 1 square mile complex, protected by a double electric fence.

Dr Cesare Galli pulls out a white rhino embryo from a liquid nitrogen canister. The Avantea laboratory created 12 of these embryos.

A ranger from the anti-poaching unit works with a tracker dog. The crackdown on poaching in Kenya has helped increase black rhino populations.

Rangers keep watch over Ol Pejeta Conservancy, which is part of a 24-hour armed guard that protects the last two white rhinos in the north.

Najin grazes with Fatu in their enclosure. Rhinos are herbivores and spend much of their day in the wild grazing on shrubs and grasses.

A researcher from the Avantea laboratory takes care of her tasks. Scientists expect the first in vitro fertilized embryo to be implanted in a southern white rhino surrogate by the end of the year.


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