In pictures: On a mission to save Kenya’s northern white rhinos

When the northern white rhinos Najin, Fatu, Suni and Sudan were brought to Kenya‘s Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2009, there was hope that returning to their natural habitat could help them regain their zest for life and encourage reproduction.

Little went according to plan. The four imported rhinos mated, but to no avail.

Why we wrote that

Kenya’s improved protection of its entire rhino population has resulted in a steady increase in the number. But its northern white rhinos need urgent efforts beyond just protection.

Now, Najin and Fatu, both females, are the only northern white rhinos left. Conservation alone can no longer save the species.

Step inside the scientists at BioRescue, an international consortium developing techniques for resuscitation of the northern white rhinoceros, including in vitro fertilization. In the laboratory of a consortium partner, the sperm of the deceased male Suni was injected into Fatu oocytes, creating 12 northern white rhinoceros embryos.

The plan is to transfer the embryos to surrogate mothers of the southern white rhinoceros. “One man and one woman are not enough to feed a self-sustaining population,” says consortium researcher Cesare Galli. “If we create four embryos a year, that’s 16 in just four years. If we get a 50% success rate, we will have eight new animals. With this number we cannot completely repopulate Kenya, but it is a start. “

With the help of scientists, the northern white rhinos of Kenya could still be brought back from the abyss.

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The last two remaining white rhinos are kept behind electrified fences and protected by a squad of rangers in the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Up close, the females Fatu and Najin appear unimpressed by the far-reaching effects of their subspecies’ imminent extinction, a result of widespread poaching, habitat loss and wars.

They spend their nights in their cozy, thatched pens between whistling thorn trees. From around 6 a.m. to 9 a.m. they can graze in their approximately 1 square kilometer enclosure.

Najin and Fatu were born in the Dvu˚r Králové Safari Park, a zoo in the Czech Republic. Both descend from the last male northern white rhinoceros named Sudan: Najin is his daughter, while Fatu is his granddaughter.

Why we wrote that

Kenya’s improved protection of its entire rhino population has resulted in a steady increase in the number. But its northern white rhinos need urgent efforts beyond just protection.

The two were transferred to Ol Pejeta in 2009, together with Sudan and a male named Suni, in the hope of regaining their zest for life and promoting reproduction by returning to their natural habitat.

Little went according to plan. The four imported rhinos mated, but to no avail. In 2014, Suni died of natural causes. In 2018, Sudan, the last standing white man in the north, was euthanized after a string of health problems.

Kenya has the second largest rhino population in the world after South Africa. Species include the smaller black rhinoceros and two subspecies of the white rhinoceros – the northern and southern. Overall, Kenya’s approach to protecting animals has proven successful. In recent years, the black rhinoceros and southern white rhinoceros population is slowly growing every year. Last year the Kenya Wildlife Service reported that not a single rhino had been killed in the country. Researchers say the improvements are due to a combination of factors including better ranger training, better tracking of animals, and stricter laws that mandate long prison terms and $ 200,000 fines for convicted poachers.

But conservation alone cannot save the species. Step inside the scientists at BioRescue, an international consortium developing techniques for resuscitation of the northern white rhinoceros, including in vitro fertilization. In the laboratory of a consortium partner, the Avantea company, the sperm of the deceased male Suni was injected into Fatu oocytes, creating 12 northern white rhinoceros embryos. The embryos are stored at minus 196 degrees Celsius at the Avantea plant in Cremona, Italy.

The plan is to transfer the embryos to surrogate mothers of the southern white rhinoceros. “One man and one woman are not enough to feed a self-sustaining population,” says Cesare Galli, founder and CEO of Avantea. “If we create four embryos a year, that’s 16 in just four years. If we get a 50% success rate, we will have eight new animals. With this number we cannot completely repopulate Kenya, but it is a start. “

The southern white rhinos faced a similar situation. But after the South African government placed them under special protection, their number rose to over 20,000. With the help of scientists, the northern white rhinos of Kenya could still be brought back from the abyss.

At the Avantea laboratory in Cremona, Italy, scientists are fighting against the clock to create the first northern white rhinoceros through in vitro fertilization.

Of the 16 rhinos buried here, only two died of natural causes; the rest were butchered by poachers for their horns.

Najin and her daughter Fatu walk with their companion Tauvo, a southern white rhinoceros, over their 1 square kilometer area, which is protected by a double electric fence.

Dr. Cesare Galli fetches a white rhinoceros embryo from a canister of liquid nitrogen. The Avantea laboratory produced 12 such embryos.

A ranger from the anti-poaching unit works with a sniffer dog. Kenya’s crackdown on poaching has helped increase the black rhinoceros population.

Rangers watch over the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, part of a 24/7 armed guard protecting the last two northern white rhinos.

Najin grazes in their enclosure with Fatu. Rhinos are herbivores and spend much of their day in the wild on shrubs and grasses.

A researcher in the Avantea laboratory takes care of her tasks. Scientists expect the first in vitro fertilized embryo to be implanted in a surrogate mother of the southern white rhinoceros by the end of the year.

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