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Scientists harvest eggs of last two surviving white rhino to pull species from brink of extinction

Roland Oliphant
Najin, 30, and her offspring Fatu, 19, (right) two female northern white rhinos, are the last two northern white rhinos left on the planet - AFP

A Jurassic Park-style plan to bring back an effectively extinct species took a step towards being realised after scientists successfully harvested eggs from world's last two northern white rhino. 

Northern white rhino was thought to be doomed forever when Sudan, the planet's last male, died at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in March 2018.   

He was survived only by Najin, 30 and her daughter Fatu, who live under 18 live under 24 hour armed guard in the same conservancy, but are both unable to become pregnant.  

But now an international consortium of scientists is using frozen sperm from four deceased males and eggs harvested from the two females to raise the species from the dead. 

"We succeeded in getting 10 eggs, which is fantastic. They arrived in Italy on Friday morning and will be matured before being applied to sperm to create embryos," said Steven Seet a spokesman for the IZW and partner in the project. 

Because neither Najin nor Fatu are healthy enough to carry a pregnancy to term, the plan is to implant the embryos in the wombs of  southern white rhinos, a closely related subspecies still found in large numbers in South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana.  

Fatu is escorted by armed rangers around Ol Pejeta Conservancy near Nanyuki Credit: DAI KUROKAWA/EPA-EFE/REX

It has not been tried before and the embryos will have to be frozen while scientists perfect the technique. They hope to produce living offspring withing three years. 

"I am pretty sure we will overcome that hurdle. But even if we are able to have those frozen embryos and store them for 3000 years or longer, we can say with have saved the whole organism for future generations," said Mr Seet.  

The BioRescue project was formally launched in June with four million Euros in funding from Germany's Federal Ministry of Education and Research, although the scientists involved have been working self-funded for several years. 

The IZW describes the project, which also involves the Italian biotech laboratory Avantea, the Dvur Kralove zoo in Czechia, and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), as an "attempt to push the boundaries of what is medically and technically feasible."   

While the plan is slightly less far fetched than the one depicted in Jurassic Park, which used DNA frozen for millions of years in amber to clone dinosaurs, its advocates admit it will faces major scientific hurdles and will raise new questions in medical ethics.  

In the best case scenario, only a handful of calves maybe born from Najin and Fatu's eggs, and the lack of genetic diversity between the half-siblings could make it impossible to create a viable breeding population. 

A team of scientists successfully harvested eggs from the two female northern white rhinos  Credit: AMI VITALE/OL PEJETA CONSERVANCY/HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/

To tackle that, the project has bought in leading researchers from Germany, Italy, Japan, and the US to try and create artificial sex cells via stem cells sourced from the frozen skin tissue of unrelated northern whites. 

Using stem cells to create artificial life is one of the most controversial areas of medical science. Barabra Demori, a moral philosopher from the University of Padua, has been asked to oversee the ethical dimension of the work. 

John Waweru, the director general of the KWS, said: "We are delighted that this partnership gets us one step closer to prevent extinction of the northern white rhinos. This is particularly touching given the heartbreaking death of Sudan, the last male, who died of old age last year in Kenya."

With no natural predators, northern white rhino once roamed in their thousands across the grassy plains that stretch along the southern edge of the Sahara desert, including in Uganda, the Central African Republic, Sudan, and Chad.  

But demand for rhino horn for use in Chinese medicine and dagger handles in Yemen fueled a poaching crisis that saw them wiped out in large parts of their range in the 1980s and 1970s.

They were considered extinct in the wild in 2008 after a wide ranging survey failed to find any specimens.  One last wild sighting was made by Russian helicopter pilots who saw three rhinos thought to be northern whites while overflying a remote part of Sudan in 2010,  but none have been seen since.