Reproductive technologies for rhino conservation

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Joint statement by the International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International

The use of advanced reproductive technologies (ART) to save rhino species has more recently come to the fore in relation to the northern white rhino, Ceratotherium simum cottoni, a subspecies that now has only two individuals on the planet.

This is a very complicated question. The International Rhino Foundation and Save the Rhino International have the deepest respect for the group of scientists at the San Diego Zoo Global in California and the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, who are working to turn living rhino cells into gametes. , then use in vitro fertilization (IVF) to create embryos and revitalize the population. We do not believe, however, that the methods will be in place until the last representative of the northern white rhino subspecies dies.

Despite an unknown (but certainly significant) number of procedures conducted over a period of more than 15 years, fewer than 10 live rhino births have resulted from artificial insemination (AI). Less than 20 rhino embryos have already been created; the technology to achieve the goals of this project still has a long way to go. IVF has never been used successfully for any rhino species. Each species is unique and the physiology of reproduction is different. IVF requires specific conditions to mimic the uterine environment and it will take a long time and huge funding to perfect the methodology. The teams working on the ART for the northern white rhino are well aware that the surviving members of the subspecies will be long dead by this time; therefore, the plan is to use southern white rhinos as surrogates. However, establishing a viable pregnancy in a female surrogate can be extremely difficult.

If and when the northern white rhinos were successfully bred, there would be problems knowing where to locate them: the countries in which they perished are still in conflict and “repatriation” is unlikely. Complex ethical questions are at stake: do we have to “recreate” a species that has disappeared?

Absolutely, we – the conservation community and international governments – should have tackled the problem more vigorously much earlier. The International Rhino Foundation invested millions of dollars in protecting the northern white rhino in Garamba National Park in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but, despite protection, the species was lost when the park became an area conflict and the IRF had to withdraw to ensure the safety of its staff. Range state governments are responsible for conserving their biological heritage, but if there is no political will, there is little that nonprofits can do.

Certainly the level funding that has been raised for the work in San Diego and Leibniz could be well spent for conservation on the ground, but we don’t think the donors are the same; thus, the funding used to support this work is unlikely to compete with the funding that would be available for field conservation. There is no doubt among those working with rhinos in the field that protection needs to be strengthened and better funded. For example, the Howard G. Buffet Foundation’s $ 24 million donation to Kruger National Park allowed SANParks to begin countering an unprecedented poaching attack in the park using improved patrols and complex security technology and sophisticated.

It is also essential to tackle the use of rhino horn in consuming countries, and many groups are doing a great job, for example Education for Nature Vietnam, which is one of our beneficiaries. It will be very difficult to change thousands of years of rhino horn use in traditional Asian medicine in China, despite the laws that prohibit it. But in Viet Nam, a new market has emerged in which rhino horn is seen as a luxury item, used as a high-value gift to secure business deals and as a purported cure for hangovers and even cancer. . These are new uses, which hopefully can be addressed through campaigns to stop the consumption of rhino horn. Once again, however, without political will and without enforcement of its laws against the use of rhino horn, Viet Nam is guilty of perpetuating the rhino poaching crisis in Africa.

That said, there are other rhino species that are at risk, and refining methods for the northern white rhino could help these species in the future, for example, the Sumatran or Java rhino (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis and Rhinoceros sondaicus), both of which have fewer than 100 individuals and the former is declining rapidly. We are also cryogenizing fibroblasts for Sumatran rhinos to preserve options for the future, and Dr. Oliver Ryder’s lab in San Diego kindly provided training on cell extraction and storage methods. But the technology, which could help increase the numbers very slightly in the grand scheme of things, may not be in place in time for the Sumatran rhinos, either.

For these species, strict protection in intensive protection areas within national parks, consolidation of fragmented populations, expansion of captive breeding and creation of a sense of belonging among local populations offer the most hope. “High tech” methods are an important heuristic science and should not be ruled out. But for now, active conservation in Indonesia is the most important approach. No species has been saved by high-tech approaches alone, but these technologies have proven invaluable when integrated into natural reproduction and protection of wild populations. Because there are no more wild northern white rhinos left and the two still alive cannot reproduce naturally, it seems highly unlikely that high-tech approaches alone can save (or resuscitate) the sub- species.

The IRF and Save the Rhino firmly believe that when working with any species, we should maximize our options and minimize our future regrets. We must address the challenge facing rhinos using multifaceted approaches, and “high-tech” science, including work with northern white rhinos, is one of them.

There are no easy answers regarding the northern white rhino subspecies. It is now functionally off. The biggest lesson is that we can never let this happen again with other rhino species.


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