Sunday 26 March 2017

Row over plan to save 'extinct' rhino

'Other creatures that might benefit from this technology include the kouprey, an ox-like creature from Cambodia, and the buffalo-like anoa, from Sulawesi.' Photo: Getty
'Other creatures that might benefit from this technology include the kouprey, an ox-like creature from Cambodia, and the buffalo-like anoa, from Sulawesi.' Photo: Getty

Robin McKie

Under the watchful eyes of a group of heavily armed guards, three rhinos graze on the grassland of the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Most of the world knows that the rhinoceros is threatened, but the status of these animals is in another league. They are the planet's last three northern white rhinos. None is capable of breeding. The northern white, which once roamed Africa in its thousands, is in effect extinct. The three - named Sudan, Najin and Fatu - are the last of their kind.

In a few months, however, a group of scientists from the US, Germany, Italy and Japan will attempt the seemingly impossible: to rescue the northern white rhino - smaller and hairier than its southern cousin - from the jaws of extinction. In October, they plan to remove the last eggs from the two female northern whites and by using advanced reproductive techniques, including stem cell technology and IVF, create embryos that could be carried to term by surrogate rhino mothers. The northern white could then be restored to its former glory. The procedure would be a world first.

It is an audacious plan -and a controversial one. Many conservation experts believe the resources being used to create northern white embryos would be better spent on saving other rhino species by providing them with protection in the wild. Why try to restore the species if the cause of its extinction has still not been tackled, they ask. Others say that taking a hi-tech approach to species preservation could lull the conservation movement into thinking it would always be able to fall back on science to help reproduce a species once it gets into trouble.

These points are rejected by project scientists. "Unless we act now, the northern white rhino will go extinct. And don't forget that, once we have developed IVF and stem cell technologies to save it, we will then be able to use them to rescue other threatened species," said one of the project's leading scientists, Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin. "For example, there are only three or four rhinoceros from Borneo left in captivity and none known in the wild," said Hildebrandt. "We could use this technology to rescue them."

Other creatures that might benefit from this technology include the kouprey, an ox-like creature from Cambodia, and the buffalo-like anoa, from Sulawesi.

But not everyone agrees with the hi-tech approach.

"We put millions of dollars into protecting the northern white rhino in Garamba national park in the Democratic Republic of Congo," said Susie Ellis, of the International Rhino Foundation.

"However, the species was lost there when the park became a conflict zone and we had to pull out to ensure the safety of our staff. If there is no political will, there is only so much that organisations like ours can do."

"We need to take a multifaceted approach to this challenge, and hi-tech science is certainly one of them," added Ellis.

"In fact, there is no easy answer regarding the northern white rhino. It is now functionally extinct.

"The best lesson we can learn from that is to never let that happen again with any other species." © Guardian

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