Another lap won in the race against time: Northern white rhino rescue programme resumes work with successful egg harvest

After a hiatus of a few months owing to the global COVID-19 pandemic, the international team of scientists and conservationists continued its ambitious programme to save the northern white rhino from extinction: On August 18, 2020 they harvested 10 eggs from the last remaining two individuals, Najin and Fatu, in the third-ever ovum pickup procedure in northern white rhinos, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. With great support from the Kenya Wildlife Service and the Kenyan Ministry of Tourism and Wildlife, the team from the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) and Czech Safari Park Dvůr Králové overcame substantial challenges to perform this important procedure in such critical times. Preparations for the next steps in the programme – the generation and transfer of embryos – are underway, ensuring that everything is done to make the best possible progress to save the northern white rhino from the brink of extinction.

Twelve months after the ground breaking first “ovum pickup” in August 2019 and eight months after the second, the team repeated the procedure with northern white rhinos Najin and Fatu on August 18, 2020, at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The animals were placed under general anaesthetic and 10 immature egg cells (oocytes) – 2 from Najin and 8 from Fatu – were harvested from the ovaries using a probe with a movable needle guided by ultrasound. The anaesthesia and the ovum pickup went smoothly and without any complications. The oocytes were airlifted immediately to the Avantea Laboratory in Italy. In the coming days they will be incubated and matured and fertilised with sperm from already deceased northern white rhino bulls – hopefully leading to viable northern white rhino embryos that will be stored in liquid nitrogen alongside the three embryos generated during the previous procedures.

“The progress made so far in the northern white rhino assisted reproduction project is very encouraging, and we look forward to the transfer of the already developed embryos into southern white rhino surrogate females here at Ol Pejeta Conservancy. This project should galvanise the world’s attention to the plight of endangered species and make us avoid actions that undermine law enforcement and fuel demand for the rhino horn,” says Hon. Najib Balala, Kenya’s Cabinet Secretary for Tourism and Wildlife.

This procedure was conducted several months behind the original schedule of BioRescue, the international consortium led by the Leibniz-IZW and partially funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research. The COVID-19 pandemic has severely affected the project and its partners: travel restrictions and contact prohibitions prevented work from taking place in European zoos and Ol Pejeta Conservancy. Partner organisations such as Safari Park Dvůr Králové and Ol Pejeta Conservancy faced – and continue to face – an existential threat as they largely depend on tourism. In several ways, the current COVID-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented threat to wildlife conservation. It is the hope and the will of all partners of the northern white rhino rescue programme to continue its mission against the odds. Since the northern white rhino offspring that will hopefully arise from the programme shall grow up in the company of Najin and Fatu and Najin is approaching old age, there is no time to lose.

German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Anja Karliczek, says: “Biodiversity is the basis of our livelihoods, but it is increasingly under threat from habitat destruction, pollution, and climate change. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research has therefore established the Research Initiative for the Conservation of Biodiversity. This initiative will significantly advance biodiversity research, bundle activities more effectively, thereby making a vital contribution to combating the advancing loss of biological diversity. In addition, we facilitate immediate measures to protect endangered species, such as the Northern White Rhinoceros within the BioRescue Project. The Northern White Rhinoceros not only has been a key species in the African savannah over thousands of years but is also an emblematic symbol of our joint fight against biodiversity loss. Thanks to the great dedication shown by those involved and their many supporters, there is now a chance that we will be able to preserve this critically endangered species. We are very grateful for having the Kenyan government as a strong partner in saving the Northern White Rhinoceros. I do not want to tell my grandchildren tales of the Northern White Rhinoceros; they should still be able to see these magnificent animals with their own eyes.”

Preparations for the next steps of the mission are underway. The plan is to select a group of southern white rhinos at Ol Pejeta Conservancy from which a female would be selected to serve as surrogate mother for the northern white rhino embryo. Additionally, the partners agreed on the procedure of sterilising a southern white rhino bull. This bull, which has already produced many offspring, is crucial to indicate oestrus and to create an ideal hormonal environment in the potential surrogates. To achieve the best possible results for work with pure northern white rhino embryos, the team relies on experience from similar embryo transfer procedures in southern white rhinos that have been performed in order to address reproduction challenges in European zoos.

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Thomas Hildebrandt, Head of BioRescue project, Head of Dept Reproduction Management, Leibniz-IZW

“As scientists we are used to fundamental challenges and to finding entirely new approaches to problems. Pushing boundaries is essentially what we are trying to achieve with the advanced assisted reproduction technologies and stem cell associated techniques in BioRescue. Still, we were hit hard by the impact of the corona virus pandemic and had to clear many obstacles to resume our work. On the other hand, this time of crisis shows the importance of our mission: We always regarded BioRescue as not only focused on creating new offspring of one single species, but rather as a first milestone in repairing severely disturbed habitats in Central Africa. Re-introducing a giant grazer back into these habitats will help rebuilding the natural resilience of these ecosystems and significantly decrease the risk of new pandemics.”

Cesare Galli, Director of Avantea 

“It is important that we do not lose the momentum initiated in August last year with the production of the first embryos. Such complex procedures require continuous practice to be successful at all levels from oocyte collection to fertilisation embryo culture and freezing. It is a great news that the work has resumed. Time works against us as the oocytes that are not harvested will be lost physiologically anyway so we must try to do as many collections as possible in absolute safety and we know that we can achieve that with the high skilled team working in BioRescue. But collecting oocytes in Ol Pejeta is only the tip of the iceberg. A lot of work is taking place behind the scenes in European zoos to be able to establish the first pregnancy with southern white rhino embryos as this will be instrumental before we thaw and transfer any northern white rhino embryos.”

Jan Stejskal, Director of International Projects, Safari Park Dvůr Králové
“It is extremely promising that our team was able to harvest such a high number of eggs from Najin. We have to respect that in future her age and general health condition might not allow us to collect her eggs anymore and for saving the northern white rhino it would be really beneficial to produce embryos even from Najin, not only from Fatu as we succeeded after previous procedures.”

Richard Vigne, Managing Director, Ol Pejeta Conservancy
“At Ol Pejeta, despite the existential threat that is posed by the ongoing COVID pandemic, we are immensely proud to be continuing our work to save endangered species. As well as supporting the work to save the northern white rhino, we are working with our partners to safeguard East Africa’s single largest population of black rhino, as well as numerous other threatened species. It is work that is becoming more and more important as the human race continues to ravage the natural world, and we very much hope that our efforts keep drawing attention to the threats posed to biodiversity across the globe.”

Brig (Rtd) John Waweru, Director General, Kenya Wildlife Service
"We are delighted that this partnership gets us one step closer to prevent extinction of a species. This is particularly touching given there is no remaining male of the species in the world”.

Barbara de Mori, Director of the Ethics Laboratory for Veterinary Medicine, Conservation and Animal Welfare – University of Padua

“As scientists we have a strong ethical responsibility to do whatever is in our possibilities to save the North White Rhino from extinction and to give a chance to Naijn and Fatu to raise their offspring. The race against time has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and now we have to try to regain the lost time.  As in previous procedures on the Northern White Rhino females a detailed ethical assessment of all major steps before, at and after the intervention were regularly performed in order to assure the welfare of the animals involved and to gain a high quality of research results. The next steps of the mission will be ethically monitored with care, the aim is to get offspring very soon.”

Sebastian Bohl, Vice President, Global Head of New Businesses, Fertility, Merck

 “After eight long months, it’s fantastic to see this ambitious endeavor to save the Northern White Rhino take next steps. As we think of the challenges ahead, we feel very proud to continue to be in this together with Project BioRecue as a long-term partner, providing our technology, expertise and experience in fertility to their important work. We know any journey using assisted reproductive technologies can have ups and downs and just how important it is to give these embryos the best chance of success.”

BioRescue: Latest oocyte collection in northern white rhinos yields no embryos

On August 18, the BioRescue team successfully collected ten oocytes (immature egg cells) from the last two northern white rhinos, females Najin and Fatu, in Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. This has been the third time the team collected the egg cells in order to fertilize them and to produce viable embryos. In a lab, six out of ten oocytes were injected with northern white rhino semen - despite the fact that only two oocytes were clearly matured. Unfortunately, as the quality of oocytes was poor, this time none of them developed into a viable embryo that could be used for an embryo transfer in future.

Prof. Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the BioRescue project, says: “This is a highly advanced scientific procedure that really pushes the boundaries of what is possible in in-vitro fertilization in rhinoceroses – and in scientific process we cannot expect that every single attempt would be successful. We still have three cryopreserved pure northern white rhino embryos from the first two egg collections as a basis for our future progress. Now it’s clear how crucial it is to collect as many oocytes as possible and to develop as many embryos as possible. We can only hope that our work will not be disrupted again the way it was due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Eggs and consequently embryos are necessary for the artificial reproduction of the northern white rhino and any uncollected genetic material is lost forever.”

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