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Success on rhino IVF gives hope for rare species locally

Caroline Chebet, The Standard | June 29, 2020

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Researchers have announced a breakthrough in scientific reproductive techniques following the creation of four southern white rhino embryos, a milestone set to shine light on the anticipated procedure on northern white rhinos in Kenya.

The milestone was realised in European zoos by the same team that is to perform the same procedure in Kenya in the race to save the northern white rhino species.

It is expected that the same expertise will be used on the northern white rhinos, a project that has been put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Very exciting news from the rhino IVF team in Europe who have managed to create four southern white rhino embryos using the same methods they will use on the northern whites. All this gained knowledge and experience will help them later when they resume their work with the northern whites, ensuring that their very rare eggs are given the best possible chance to survive when the time comes,” Ol Pejeta Conservancy said in a statement.

The team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, the conservancy added, was meant to continue with the procedure at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County. The team was slated to harvest ovum at the end of April from the remaining two female northern white rhinos.

Ovum Pick-Up

“The team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research were meant to come to Ol Pejeta for another ovum pick-up at the end of the April, but of course, due to Covid-19, this had to be postponed. Nevertheless, they continued their research by harvesting eggs from a southern white rhino female in Serengeti Park, Hodenhagen, Germany, and then maturing the oocytes in the Avantea lab,” the conservancy said.

Covid-19 has made it impossible for key scientists and veterinarians to travel, dealing a blow to the race to save the rare rhinos from extinction.

The race started in August 2019 after a consortium of scientists and veterinarians successfully harvested eggs from the two female rhinos.

Another awaited procedure that involves transferring of the three fertilised embryo to surrogate southern white rhinos is expected to take place at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

“We hope to resume the procedure once travel restrictions are lifted,” Dr David Ndeere, Kenya Wildlife Services head of veterinary services, said.

Ol Pejeta CEO Richard Vigne said the pandemic has dealt a blow to plans to serve the rare rhinos from extinction. “The pandemic has had adverse impacts. In the race to save the northern white rhinos, it was planned that the eggs from the two females be harvested after every three to four months to maximise on survival rates. However, that has since been put on hold as a result of the pandemic,” he said.