Scientists are hoping to use IVF and stem cell techniques developed for humans to resurrect the northern white rhino – but the process is fraught with challenges
While the death of Sudan marks a symbolic turning point in the fight to save the northern white rhino, in fact the survival of the species has been entirely reliant on untested IVF techniques for years.
It was hoped that Sudan, his daughter Najin and granddaughter Patu might be able to produce offspring when they were moved to Kenya in 2009, but their close genetic relationship rendered them infertile.
Since at least 2015 scientists have been working with IVF and stem cell techniques in the hopes of being able to create a viable northern white rhino embryo, according to a GoFundMe page for the project.
Researchers in Berlin and San Diego are using DNA samples collected from a dozen northern whites, including Sudan, and trying to apply techniques developed for humans to the animal.
If a viable embryo can be created, it would then have to be implanted into the womb of a southern white rhino, since Majin and Patu will likely be dead before the technique is perfected.
While the southern white rhino would be responsible for giving birth to the baby, because the infant’s genetic material came solely from northern whites, it would be a member of that species.
However, as Save The Rhino points out, the process is fraught with difficulty and has a low chance of success.
In the last 15 years just 10 rhino births have resulted from artificial insemination and only two embryos have ever been created – one of which divided into two cells before perishing, and the other one into three.
For the northern white rhino to be genetically viable a minimum of 20 healthy individuals must be born – meaning the whole process must be successfully completed 20 times – to avoid inbreeding.
Then, it would be necessary to find a suitable habitat for them, since their old habitat has largely been destroyed and led the species to the brink of extinction in the first place.