Oxford researchers launch project to save species on the brink of extinction

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Researchers at Oxford University are thought to be able to save a species of rhinoceros on the brink of extinction. Numbers of northern white rhinoceroses have fallen dramatically over the last few decades. During the 1970s, around 500 remained across central and southern regions of Africa, while only two female rhinoceroses, Najin and Fatu, survive today. Excessive poaching of this species through illegal hunting practises due to the value of its horns are the main cause of its potential extinction.

The survival of the species is further threatened by the fact that both Najin and Fatu are unable to bear calves, an issue that the researchers have been attempting to tackle. A team of scientists led by Dr Suzanne Williams believe that they are able to stimulate the ovarian tissue of the two surviving female rhinoceroses in order to produce eggs. These eggs can then be fertilised by sperm preserved from male northern white rhinoceroses, the last of which died in 2018.

Dr Williams stated, “With the death of the last male, Sudan, the Northern White Rhino has passed the point where it can be saved naturally and is a shade away from extinction. This will add yet another species to the list of those wiped out by humans.

What is exciting about this research is that it could enable us to pull critically endangered species back from the brink by utilising ovarian tissue from old or injured animals to produce offspring.”

The embryos produced from this process will then be placed into the womb of a healthy surrogate mother. The surrogate mother is most likely to be a rhinoceros of a similar species, such as the Southern white rhinoceros.

This technique has not yet been tried out on Najin and Fatu. However, it has already been successfully carried out with mice, with further plans to apply this process to the ovarian tissue of Southern White rhinoceroses before finally attempting to create embryos of northern white rhinoceroses.

Najin and Fatu are now living in an enclosure in Kenya. The conditions of their closure are semi-wild and so their horns have been sawed off in order to ward off poachers.

According to Dr Williams, “If successful, this technique would be a powerful tool in the global effort to conserve endangered species.’ A crowd-funding campaign has been launched by the University to further support the researchers’ work on a long-term basis.

Image Credit: Sheep81 via Wikimedia Commons