The Struggle for the Survival of the Northern White Rhino

Have you ever heard of the white rhinoceros? Residing predominately in Southern Africa, it is the second largest land mammal in the world, next to the elephant. They have the potential to weigh over 2,000 kilograms (2 tons) and can be as tall as 1.8 meters (6 feet). They tend to be more mellow than other species of rhinoceros, and their hump prevents them from swimming. Their average lifespan ranges from 35 to 40 years.

There are two subspecies; the southern white rhinoceros and the northern white rhinoceros. The southern white rhinoceros remains plentiful, with roughly 20,000-21,000 of them, making them a low concern item on the conservation status. The northern white rhinoceros, however, is in a far more precarious position.

Adult White Rhino’s in South Africa

In 1960, there were around 2,360 northern white rhinos out roaming the Central African wild. By 1984, however, their population had been drastically reduced to about 15, a tragic circumstance of civil violence and poaching.

Fast-forward from there to December of 2009, and the population was further reduced to a mere eight. These rhinos, thankfully, were all safety kept within zoos, but the situation nonetheless appeared bleak. Of the eight which remained, only four of them were potentially fertile. It was these four which were transported to the Ol Pejeta wildlife conservancy, located in Africa. The idea was that the greater warmth and more extensive grasslands would be ideal for getting the rhinos to breed, and thus paving way for the subspecies’ recovery.

It was a noble effort, but alas, it did not pan out. While there were multiple mating attempts, the rhinos remained barren. As the years went on, the rhinos grew elderly and began to pass away. Sudan, the last remaining male, passed away on March 19, 2018. This leaves Fatu and Najin, a mother and daughter, as the only two northern white rhinos left, both of whom were ultimately deemed incapable of bearing calves.

A ranger touches Najin, one of the world’s last two remaining female northern white rhinos (Photo: Xinhua / Barcroft Images)

Despite this, all hope was not lost. Scientists had made preparations ahead of time. Since 2014, they had been gathering and freezing semen from the northern white rhinos, including from Sudan. The process is known as vitro fertilization, where the egg and sperm are fertilized outside the body. If the process were successful, it could help restore the species’ population.

Things continued to look up when, after a delicate procedure, a scientific team successfully retrieved eggs from Fatu and Najin. This was something which had never before been attempted on northern white rhinos. The eggs were then fertilized with the frozen semen, and embryos were successfully created. The embryos are now being stored in liquid nitrogen, and when they are ready, they will be transferred into a surrogate southern white rhino mother.

While it ultimately remains to be seen if the process will be successful from here, so far things have looked promising. We must remind ourselves the importance of doing everything we can for our precious environment, and for the creatures who inhabit it.

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