Mention the word ‘extinction’ and most people will cite the dodo. Once common on the island of Mauritius, this large, flightless bird made a fatal error of judgement: having lived alongside men for centuries it assumed that its fellow bipeds were harmless. And until 1598 it was right. But then along came the Dutch East India Company whose sailors, finding that the peaceably inclined dodo made no attempt to run away from them, hunted it to extinction in just 64 years.
The West African black rhino made a similar error. Having existed for 8 million years, by the 1900s there were 850,000 of its kind in existence, which made it the most prolific species of rhino on the planet. Between 1970 and 1992, however, 95% of them were massacred until, by 2006, it was thought that there was only one West African black rhino left in the cosmos… somewhere in Cameroon. However, since nobody could find it, in 2011 it was declared extinct.
As for the northern white rhino, until last month, it was feared that it too would walk the extinction plank; but fate intervened in the shape of a group of determined scientists on a Kenyan conservancy called Ol Pejeta. It was here, in the shadow of Mount Kenya, that the planet’s last three northern white rhinos lived out a gilded existence in their own private wilderness enclosure: guarded day and night by gun-toting rangers; cossetted by their keepers; indulged with pony pellets; and visited by carefully regulated groups of awestruck tourists. The trio had originally been reared in the Czech Republic’s Dvůr Králové Zoo but in 2009, Sudan, his daughter, Natu, and his granddaughter, Fatu were relocated to Ol Pejeta in the hope that the more conducive surroundings would encourage them to breed. It was not to be: Sudan was too old and neither of the ladies could become pregnant. Then, in 2018, Sudan died; and the threat of extinction went into overdrive. Until it was reversed.
As luck would have it, before Sudan’s death, a dedicated group of scientists had harvested his semen and in August 2019, a team of veterinarians successfully harvested eggs from Natu and Fatu, a procedure that had never been attempted in northern white rhinos before. The eggs will now be artificially inseminated with the frozen sperm from Sudan, and in the near future the embryo will be transferred to a southern white rhino surrogate mother. The successful procedure was a joint effort by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) Berlin, Avantea, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).
“Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch”, said Prof. Thomas Hildebrandt from Leibniz-IZW. “We were able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes – 5 from Najin and 5 from Fatu – showing that both females can still provide eggs and thus help to save these magnificent creatures.”
Kenya: one. Extinction: nil. To learn more about this extraordinary initiative, visit: www.olpejetaconservancy.org