Researchers resume White Rhino egg harvesting amidst COVID-19 pandemic

By Joseph Abuje

Northern white rhino rescue programme resumes work with the successful egg harvest after a few months’ hiatus due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

So far, 10 eggs have harvested from the last remaining two individuals, Najin and Fatu, in the third-ever ovum pick up procedure in northern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

With the support from the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the team from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and Czech Safari Park Dvůr Králové overcame substantial challenges to performing this important procedure in such critical times.

Preparations for the next steps in the programme – the generation and transfer of embryos – are underway, ensuring that everything is done not to lose any more precious time saving the northern white rhinos from the brink of extinction.

“The progress so far is encouraging, and we look forward to the transfer of the already developed embryos into southern white rhino surrogate females here at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. This project should galvanize the world’s attention to the plight of endangered species and make us avoid actions that undermine law enforcement and fuel demand for the rhino horn,” said Najib Balala, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife.

Balala said biodiversity forms the foundation of Kenya’s very existence. But it is increasingly threatened by the destruction of natural habitats, environmental pollution and climate change.

The northern white rhinoceros has become a symbol for Kenya’s efforts to fight the loss of biological diversity.

The Federal Ministry of Education and Research supports this rhino conservation work through the funding it provides for the BioRescue project, which is part of the Research Initiative for the Conservation of Biodiversity.

“We are extremely grateful for the support we have received from the Kenyan government as partners in our efforts to save the northern white rhino. Thanks to the tremendous commitment shown by all involved, we now have the chance to save this animal from the threat of extinction,” said Germany Federal Research Minister Anja Karliczek.

Twelve months after the groundbreaking first “ovum pickup” in August 2019 and eight months after the second, the team repeated the procedure with northern white rhinos Najin and Fatu on August 18, 2020, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

The animals were placed under general anaesthetic and 10 immature egg cells (oocytes) – two from Najin and eight from Fatu – were harvested from the animals’ ovaries using a probe with a movable needle guided by ultrasound that went on smoothly without any complication.

The oocytes were airlifted immediately to the Avantea Laboratory in Italy.

In the coming days they will be incubated and matured, fertilized with sperm from already deceased northern white rhino bulls – hopefully leading to viable northern white rhino embryos that will be stored in liquid nitrogen alongside the three embryos generated in the previous procedures.

This procedure was conducted several months behind the original schedule of BioRescue, the international consortium led by the Leibniz-IZW and partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

The COVID-19 pandemic has severely impacted the project and its partners. travel restrictions and contact prohibitions prevented work from taking place in European zoos and Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Partner organisations such as Safari Park Dvůr Králové and Ol Pejeta Conservancy faced – and continue to face – an existential threat as they largely depend on tourism.

In various ways, the current crisis poses an unprecedented threat to wildlife conservation. It is the hope and the will of all partners of the northern white rhino rescue programme to continue its mission against all odds.

Since the northern white rhino offspring, that will hopefully arise from the programme, shall grow up in the company of Najin and Fatu and Najin is approaching old age, there is no more time to be lost.

The plan is to select a group of southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy from which a female could serve as the surrogate mother for the northern white rhino embryo.

Additionally, the partners agreed on the procedure of sterilizing a southern white rhino bull.

To achieve the best possible results for work with pure northern white rhino embryos, the team relies on experience from similar embryo transfer procedures in southern white rhinos that have been performed in order to address reproduction challenges in a European zoo.

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