(CBS News) – Scientists racing to save the world’s most endangered mammal are turning to IVF for help.
The northern white rhinos once roamed across parts of Africa before being hunted to near extinction. But now, Najin and Fatu are the last of their kind. They live under constant guard on a reserve in Kenya.
To save the species, scientists recently harvested the mother and daughter’s eggs. “So, Christmas Eve gave us a present, two embryos, and we are extremely happy about that,” says Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research.
The team is also extremely relieved. COVID-19 travel restrictions delayed the procedure, nearly putting the whole project in jeopardy. The eggs are so delicate, they had to be immediately flown in an incubator to a lab in Europe. “We really add another two embryos to our already existing three embryos. So, we have five northern white rhino embryos in excellent quality,” Hildebrandt says.
Scientists combined the eggs with the sperm of male northern white rhinos collected before they died. Since Najin and Fatu are infertile, the embryos will be placed in a surrogate mother. But the clock is ticking. “We have to produce a calf in the next two, three years,” Hildebrandt says.
But one baby isn’t enough to save the northern white rhino. Scientists say they’ll need to create as many calves as possible.