Three more northern white rhino embryos and greater diversity!
On July 9th, the scientists and conservationists of Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (BioRescue), Safari Park Dvůr Králové, Kenya Wildlife Service, and Ol Pejeta Conservancy conducted the sixth successful oocyte collection at Ol Pejeta. 17 eggs were collected from Fatu and immediately airlifted to Avantea laboratory in Cremona, Italy for maturation, fertilization, embryo development, and cryopreservation.
The team in Italy has developed three viable embryos following the recent procedure. In addition to this exciting news, the specialists at Avantea managed to find viable sperm from Angalifu, a northern white rhino bull who lived in San Diego and died in 2014, to develop one of the three embryos. Previously, Suni has contributed all the semen samples needed as it was thought that Anagalifu’s sperm was incapable of successfully fertilising the eggs. Using the sperm of a completely unrelated rhino has diversified the genetic pool of the cryo-preserved embryo population. A total of 12 pure northern white rhino embryos are now preserved awaiting future implantation into southern white rhino surrogate(s).
The BioRescue mission will continue to collect oocytes every three to four months, in order to create further embryos, as long as the COVID-19 pandemic allows the team to travel to Ol Pejeta.
The future of Najin in the recovery programme
In a discussion prior to the ovum pick-up on July 9th, the team of scientists and conservationists decided not to perform an oocyte collection on Nájin, the older of the two northern white rhino females. Her future role in the scientific programme will be discussed in the coming weeks from an ethical perspective, and a science-backed decision will be announced. So far, none of Nájin’s eggs have been of sufficient quality to turn into viable embryos. All 12 embryos produced so far used oocytes from Nájin’s daughter, Fatu.
“During the recent procedures, it was clear that Nájin’s ovaries are no longer producing a large number of eggs and that their quality is compromised. She is an old lady, and it seems it’s not worth subjecting her to the stress of any further procedures. However, her health status will be frequently monitored.” said Jan Stejskal, Director of International Projects at Safari Park Dvůr Králové.
Regardless of the decision that will be made, Najin still has an important role to play as an ambassador for the plight of her species and as a future mentor once we have a calf/ calves born.
Potential surrogates translocated to the teaser bull enclosure
The next step in the BioRescue plan to save the northern white rhinos is to implant a pure northern white rhino embryo into a southern white rhino surrogate. The team will need to observe the potential surrogates to determine the ideal time for implantation to achieve this. In line with this, Ol Pejeta and the Kenya Wildlife Service translocated two southern white rhino females, Arimiet and Mojo, to the sterilised teaser bull, Owuan’s enclosure. This process took two days, the 20th and 21st of July 2021.
The process of translocation is delicate. It requires absolute precision and care performed by a team of veterinarians and rangers to ensure its success. Rhinos roam freely in Ol Pejeta and are typically found deep in the bush. In carrying out this process, the teams had to walk miles through the thick bush to find Arimiet and Mojo.
Once found, and while keeping a safe distance, each rhino was darted. The teams then quickly followed the rhinos further into the bushes to ensure that they did not get hurt when the sedative kicked in. Using a sedative is crucial as it makes it safe and easier to get the capture truck as close as possible to the rhinos and consequently quickly guide them into the truck when the sedative starts wearing off. The capture truck is specially adapted to translocate rhinos safely and securely. This time, however, one of the rhinos was not happy about the disruption. As soon as it was let free, it made a run for the team. Our brave translocation team had to run almost 5 kilometers to get out of harm’s way, and fortunately, no one was injured!
Arimiet is nineteen years old and Mojo is eleven years old. Their selection to become potential surrogates was based on their previous reproduction records, the number of calves she had had, mothering skills, and age difference. Arimiet and Mojo have both had a successful calving history making them the ideal candidates to receive the first embryos and contribute towards saving a species. The age difference enables there to be a balance in interaction with Owuan, the bull.
We are pleased to let you know that Arimiet and Mojo have settled in well into their new area and are showing positive signs of interaction with Owuan.
BioRescue celebrates two years of the northern white rhino recovery mission!
In 2019, an international consortium of scientists and conservationists embarked on the mission to save a species with only two female individuals left, Najin and Fatu. In just two years, despite the restrictions as a result of the pandemic, the team conducted six ovum pick-up procedures, collected 80 eggs, and developed 12 pure northern white rhino embryos.
The team celebrated these milestones at the German Embassy in Nairobi on July 5th, at the invitation of the German Ambassador to Kenya, Annett Günther. In attendance were the Italian Ambassador, Alberto Pieri, the Czech Ambassador, Martin Klepetko, Ol Pejeta’s Managing Director, Richard Vigne, Professor Charles Musyoki from the Kenya Wildlife Service, and Dr. David Ndeereh from the Wildlife Research and Training Institute.
During the celebration, we looked back at the history of the northern white rhino, and the efforts that are required to bring the species from the brink of extinction. The BioRescue team additionally reminded the invited guests of the importance of keeping the northern white rhinoceros, a keystone and umbrella species of Central Africa’s savannas and wetlands, alive not only in our memories but physically for a healthy and balanced ecosystem.
In the near future, the consortium will strengthen the collaboration with its Kenyan partners, whose tremendous support, dedication, and expertise helped to achieve the successes of the past and are a warrant for achieving the milestones ahead.
NOTE: Ol Pejeta is a non-profit wildlife conservancy in Kenya supporting endangered species, tourism and community outreach.
Article courtesy of Ol Pejeta Conservancy