Science, Now + Beyond

New technology might be able to bring back extinct rhino species

Using advanced reproductive technology, scientists are hoping to bring rhinos back from the verge of extinction.

The quick, constant extinction of wildlife is a huge issue, and something that should be concerning to everyone.

Although extinctions are natural, due to human impacts on the environment, the Center for Biological Diversity has reported that species are now disappearing at rates 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than they are supposed to. In fact, the World Wildlife Fund has reported that thousands of species go extinct every single year, threatening Earth’s biodiversity.

One of the animals that are in extreme danger of going extinct soon is the rhino. Rhinos are a frequent target for hunters and poachers, who sometimes sell rhino horns to be used in traditional medicines. Hunting has seriously dwindled the only thriving rhino population. Once numbering around 500,000, only roughly 29,000 rhinos now remain scattered between the wild and conservatories for endangered species.

Recently, the northern white rhino, a rhino subspecies, was declared to be on its way to extinction. The only male northern white rhino left, named Sudan, passed away due to complications from his old age, leaving only his daughter and granddaughter alive as the surviving members of the species. Once they die, the northern white rhino will be officially extinct.

After Sudan’s death, however, researchers began working on a way to scientifically preserve the species by using in vitro fertilization (IVF) to artificially inseminate (impregnate) female rhinos to give birth to new northern white rhinos. IVF is a fairly new medical procedure in which an egg is fertilized outside the body, and then the embryo (a developing fetus) is implanted back into the body for development and birth.

Although IVF treatments have not been tried before in rhinos, scientists remain optimistic that this will one day become a method to revitalize the northern white rhino, and other at-risk rhino subspecies, populations. It might be the only way to save some types of rhinos from complete extinction.

There are a few different methods being considered for developing northern white rhino embryos. 

The first involves using a petri dish to fertilize rhino eggs. However, that’ll require trying to harvest eggs from the remaining northern white rhinos, and is a complicated process. The other option involves taking stem cells from the northern white rhinos and using technology to turn them into specialized egg and sperm cells, combining those, and implanting them into a female rhino to develop. Using the stem cells is the most likely option since there are no currently harvested female northern white rhino eggs available for use.

Progress is being made towards finding surrogate mothers to use as carriers for northern white rhino embryos. A southern white rhino, a close subspecies to the northern white rhino, recently became pregnant through artificial insemination at the San Diego Zoo, giving hope that, if she can successfully deliver her baby, she could one day be used to carry northern white rhino babies as well. There are six total female southern white rhinos that are undergoing testing to determine their eligibility to become surrogate mothers. If the early tests prove successful, scientists are hoping that northern white rhino embryos will be able to be carried sometime within the next decade, beginning the revitalization of the northern white rhino.

I think that the efforts being made to reverse extinctions are incredibly important. The diversity of species on Earth is something that makes this planet so unique and beautiful, and all animals play an important role in the ecosystem and deserve protection from human impacts.

If the northern white rhino is able to be brought back through the in vitro fertilization trials, hopefully, this will just be the beginning of reviving species through the use of new reproductive technologies.