Even Endangered Rhinos Are Affected by the Pandemic

Work to save northern white rhino has stalled
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted May 25, 2020 9:26 AM CDT
Pandemic Halts Work to Save Rare Rhinos
Researcher Paola Turini shows the frozen sperm of Suni, a northern white rhino bull who died in 2014, during the insemination of eggs from the last two remaining female northern white rhinos, at the Avantea laboratory, in Cremona, Italy.   (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni, File)

It’s not quite a case of coitus interruptus, but efforts to create a very special baby are definitely on hold. Blame the pandemic. Groundbreaking work to keep alive the nearly extinct northern white rhino subspecies—population, two—by in-vitro fertilization has been stalled by travel restrictions. And time is running out. The two northern white rhinos are female. The goal is to create viable embryos in a lab by inseminating their eggs with frozen sperm from dead males, then transfer them into a surrogate mother, a more common southern white rhino. As of January, three embryos had been created and stored in liquid nitrogen. But further key steps now have to wait, the AP reports.

"It has been disrupted by COVID-19, like everything else," says Richard Vigne, managing director of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, home of the two remaining rhinos. "That is, the process of collecting more eggs from the females as well as the process of developing the technique to introduce the northern white rhino embryo into the southern white rhino females." It’s an international effort that includes conservationists from Kenya, the Czech Republic, Germany, and Italy—many affected by closed borders or restricted travel. “We know time is working against us," says Cesare Galli, an IVF expert based in Italy. "The females will age and we don't have many to choose from." He hopes restrictions on international travel will loosen in the coming weeks so key steps can resume in August.

(Read more endangered species stories.)

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