An international team of scientists have announced a breakthrough aimed at saving the northern white rhino from extinction. The first-ever hybrid rhino embryo has been successfully created at a lab for biotechnology research in Italy.
Conservationists now plan to use the technology by replicating the procedure with genes from a northern white rhino.
The breakthrough was announced Wednesday by the Dvur Kralove Zoo and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
The development thrilled wildlife conservationists all over the world, especially in Kenya's Olpajeta conservancy, which provided a sanctuary for 10 years for the last male northern white rhino.
"Clearly it's good news, it's a step in the process to eventually being able to create a purebred northern white rhino calf through IVF [in vitro fertilization]," said Olpajeta CEO Richard Vigne.
"Once we can create an embryo, that doesn't mean we are yet able to put the embryo into a surrogate mother to create purebred northern white rhinos on the ground, but it's a step in the right direction."
In recent years, rhino numbers have dropped dramatically, mainly due to poachers killing the animals to satisfy the black market for rhino horn.
Adapting a reproduction technique used in horses, scientists used a southern white rhino egg and northern white rhino sperm to develop an embryo that they say has a strong chance of surviving to term.
For fertilization, preserved semen from deceased northern white rhino males was used.
Last male died in March
The world's last male northern white rhino, named Sudan, died in March of this year at age 45. Only two females still survive. Both also live in Olpajeta — Sudan's daughter, Najin, and granddaughter, Fatu.
The scientists' next step is to harvest eggs from Fatu and Najin. Once they have the eggs, they can begin the process of creating northern white rhino embryos for implantation. Female southern white rhinos will act as surrogate mothers.
Vigne predicts it will be another year before any implantations take place. After that, Vigne hopes Najin and Fatu will soon have company at Olpajeta.
"Keeping them in good health, plus we will eventually provide surrogate southern white rhino females into which northern white rhino embryos can be implanted to produce calves on the ground," Vigne said. "So we will provide the opportunity for the creation of a northern white rhino herd in Africa in due course."
Semen available from four males
Available semen comes from only four males, including Sudan. To create a self-sustaining population of northern white rhinos with the necessary genetic diversity, scientists will combine stem cell research with other assisted reproduction techniques.
There have been previous attempts by conservation scientists to save the rhino species. In May, a southern white rhino in the U.S. named Victoria became pregnant through artificial insemination. Scientists are now waiting to see if the rhino will carry her baby to term.