Reversing extinction – The northern white rhino test case

By Wandering Maasai | 07 January 2016

The death of Nola in San Diego Zoo in November 2015 shook the conservation world to its knees. Nola, a rare northern white rhino, died of old age leaving only three of her kind on the planet.


The species once roamed through north-western Uganda, southern Chad, south-western Sudan, the eastern part of Central African Republic, and the north-eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Hunted for its horn the blame for the demise of this magnificent animal lies squarely at human feet.

And yet there is light in this dark chapter of human stewardship.

The Rescue Plan

At a recent meeting in Vienna international scientists set up a rescue plan for the species. The goal is to use the remaining three rhinos, and tissue samples from deceased individuals, to multiply them into a viable self-sustaining population.

Great Northern White Rhinos, Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. © Ian Cumming

With age and reproductive challenges facing the last three individuals, living at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to breed naturally. However, the DNA of a dozen northern white rhinos has been preserved in genetic banks in Berlin and San Diego. Experts from Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin (IZW), San Diego Zoo Global (USA), Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Austria) and ZOO Dvůr Králové (Czech Republic) are using this genetic information to bring back the species.

The plan is twofold.

Firstly, to reproduce northern white rhinos using natural gametes of the last living individuals. Successfully achieved in dogs, the idea is that the in vitro fertilised gametes of northern white rhino will be introduced into surrogate southern white rhino cows. The expected result is that fertile northern white rhinos will be born after the normal gestation period of sixteen to eighteen months.

The second method is found in stem cell technology.

Katsuhiko Hayashi from Kyushu University in Japan has already grown mice out of simple skin cells. An international team of researchers is now working on transferring this model of success to northern white rhinos. This is ground-breaking work for wildlife conservation, offering new possibilities in the fight against species extinction caused by humans.

Having caused this decline we have a moral responsibility to do everything in our power to reverse their extinction,” says Richard Vigne, Chief Executive Officer of Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

How can you help? Unless a technique for rhino IVF or stem cell technology can be funded, developed, tested and implemented, the northern white rhino will become extinct. You can contribute by making a donation on the ‘Make a Rhino’ page here.

Further Reading

What’s the difference between northern white and southern white rhino?

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