Longleat Safari Park in the United Kingdom has joined a last ditch international race to save the world’s rarest rhino species from extinction.
The northern white rhino (Ceratotherium simum cottoni), has seen its wild population virtually wiped out due to poaching, from numbers estimated to be in the thousands as recently as 1960.
Today only an elderly male and two females remain with all three are kept under strict armed security at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
The last remaining male, 43-year-old Sudan, is reaching the end of his life and both surviving females have medical problems which prevent them from conceiving naturally.
In a final attempt to try and save the sub-species Dvur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, owners of the three surviving animals, is working with a team of scientists and conservationists led by IZW Berlin on advanced reproductive techniques.
Initial tests led by Prof Cesare Galli at Italian laboratory Avantea, which specialises in assisted reproduction of large animals, have produced encouraging results using eggs from southern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum simum) fertilised by both southern and northern white rhino sperm.
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Longleat is the first UK-based zoological collection to be involved in this ground-breaking project.
A team of experts led by Prof Robert Hermes, Dr Frank Goeritz, Dr Susanne Holtze, Prof Cesare Galli and Prof Dr Thomas Hildebrandt have harvested a total of nine eggs from Longleat’s three female southern white rhinos.
These eggs are then transported to the Italian laboratory to be fertilised with male white rhino sperm.
If successful the plan is for the resulting IVF embryos to be re-implanted back into a selected group of females later this year.
Although closely related, southern and northern white rhinos are actually two distinct sub-species which are thought to have begun diverging around a million years ago.
As their name suggests, southern white rhino populations are concentrated in the south of Africa where their wild numbers are estimated at around 20,000.
If the treatment proves successful it is hoped it could be used, alongside conservation programmes, to help boost numbers of other highly endangered species.