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Scientists try first test tube birth to save Laikipia rhino

Paul Ndung’u @PeopleDailyKe

Preparations have kicked off in Kenya and Europe for the long-anticipated delicate procedure to try to breed offspring from the last remaining three northern white rhinos in a sanctuary in northern Kenya.

Unable to make them breed naturally in Ol Pejeta wildlife sanctuary, Laikipia county, where they have been for eight years, international veterinarians and reproductive biologists resorted to attempting the first in vitro fertilisation on rhino species.

If successful, it will be a world first that could save the northern white rhino that has just three individuals on the edge of extinction. The story started on December 20, 2009, when four of then world’s last remaining seven northern white rhinos arrived at Ol Pejeta. Najin, Fatu, Sudan and Suni had been living in Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic.

All previous breeding attempts in the Zoo had been futile, and the hope was that the climate and rich grasslands of Ol Pejeta, a native habitat for the animals, would provide them with favourable breeding conditions.

Suni in Kenya and the other three in Europe have died leaving the two females, Najin and Fatu and the male Sudan. The aging trio leave reproductive experts limited time to carry out highly delicate specialist procedures.

Early last month, a diverse committee of veterinarians, conservationists and wildlife managers from the Czech Republic, Kenya, Britain and South Africa met in Kenya to discuss the next steps of ground-breaking procedures pegged on the last chance to save the species.

The three animals live in a special endangered species enclosure in the conservancy, but the male, Sudan, aged over 30, is too old to mate with Najin and Fatu, leaving scientists the option of trying the “test-tube baby” option that has only been successful in humans. The procedure will involve using northern white rhino sperm from several (now deceased) males that was harvested and stored in a laboratory in Berlin, Germany.

The sperm from Sudan cannot be extracted since the count has become too low. The eggs (ovum) will be harvested from the two live females at Ol Pejeta, Najin and Fatu who are 28 and 17 years old respectively.

The surgery required to harvest the eggs carries inherent risks. According to Ol Pejeta CEO Richard Vigne, the team of experts has been supervising the animals before an Ovum Pick-Up which will be conducted on Najin and Fatu early next year.

If the operation is successful, the eggs will be shipped to Avantea laboratory in Italy where scientists hope to develop an embryo in a test tube, using northern white rhino sperm that will delivered in highly controlled conditions from Germany.

The fertilised embryos will then be shipped back to Kenya and implanted in surrogate southern white rhino females which are numerous in the conservancy.

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