Northern White Rhino Species May Be Saved From Extinction Through IVF

Two northern white rhinos
Vladislav T. Jirousek / Shutterstock

New hopes have been raised for the northern white rhino species after a recent study showed it may be possible to use IVF to breed new individuals.

The northern white rhino population is currently made up of only two females, which are both unable to breed, after years of being hunted by poachers, according to the BBC. However, DNA evidence shows they may be more closely related to the southern white species than previously thought, which means it could be possible to create rhino hybrids via IVF in the future. Scientists say that the attempt to breed the rhino hybrids holds a good chance of being successful, but they are considering the option as a last resort.

The two subspecies of white rhinos came about around 1 million years ago when two different populations split and each headed to northern and southern Africa. But new DNA analysis of living rhinos and museum specimens showed that both populations actually mixed and bred after that first separation — maybe as recently as 14,000 years ago.

“Despite the fact that they started to diverge one million years ago, we show that they have been exchanging genes during that period, possibly as recently as the last ice age, when the African savannah expanded and reconnected the two populations,” said lead researcher Dr. Michael Bruford of Cardiff University.

“So, if they have been exchanging genes recently, this may imply that they could do so now.”

Dr. Bruford said that cross-breeding the two species using assisted reproductive technology could potentially save the northern white rhino from extinction. Poaching was behind the rapid decline in northern white rhinos, up to the point that the sub-species was declared extinct in the wild in 2008.

They were once very common in northern Africa, including in Uganda, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Chad. But sadly, the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, died earlier this year at the age of 45. The last two females, who live in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, are Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter. They are guarded at all times, but unfortunately, both of them have health issues that prevent them from being able to breed naturally.

Scientists are keeping a store of frozen sperm from male northern white rhinos, but they haven’t reached a consensus about how it should be used, as the options involve procedures such as IVF and cloning. But thanks to the new study, that idea might not be as far-fetched considering the two sub-species are genetically closer than previously thought.

“It is difficult to predict what might happen if we cross the two subspecies but given the current options for the northern white rhino it becomes a more viable option, should other approaches fail,” Dr. Bruford added.