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Racing Extinction: Two Northern White Rhinos Remain – First IVF Pregnancy Offers Hope 

The first successful rhino embryo born from IVF. This is a 70 day old male fetus. Credit: JonJuarez/BioRescue

With only two species of the Northern White Rhinoceros remaining in the world, scientists hope to use the intricate process of in vitro fertilization (IVF) to save the Northern White Rhino Species. 

As a veterinary student, I find this case groundbreaking in both its use of modern medicine and conservation efforts. I couldn’t help but dive into this news. I hope you enjoy reading about the learnings I have found and shared below. 


There are only two remaining northern white rhino species left in the world. These are two females named Fatu and Najin, who are under 24-hour armed protection in Kenya at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. These two females belong to Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic but live in Kenya.

Female northern white rhinos Fatu (left) and Najin (right). Pictured at the at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Credit: Ben Curtis/AP on

Unfortunately, with only two known females of the northern white rhino left, this subspecies is considered to be functionally extinct. Adding to this, these two females are infertile, possibly due to their age. 

This makes the outlook seem rather grim, but a team of scientists and researchers from BioRescue, funded by the German government, are working hard to beat these odds. 

What Is A Northern White Rhino?

There are two subspecies of the white rhinoceros, the Southern and the Northern. The northern white rhino, like the southern, is a grazer that used to exist in the wild in the grasslands and savanna woodlands. 

A closeup shot of a magnificent Northern white rhino captured in Ol Pejeta, Kenya. Credit: Wirestock on

What Is IVF?

In vitro fertilization is when a mature egg is collected from the ovaries and fertilized by a sperm in the lab. If successful, The fertilized eggs mature into embryos and are placed into a suitable surrogate or back into the mother who produced the egg. This process can be referred to as embryo transfer. 

3D image showing the placement of a sperm into an ovum during the process of IVF. Credit: phonlamai on

Embryo transfers have been used successfully in humans, horses, and cows but never before in rhinos. An embryo transfer can also be the process of removing an embryo (early development stages after fertilization of the egg by the sperm) and placing it into a surrogate. 

While I have explained this in short, this procedure is highly complicated and requires constant monitoring, perfect precision, highly trained experts, and timing to give it the best chance of being successful. To top it off, they are attempting to do this with a 2.5-ton wild animal. 

How Can You Use Sperm From An Animal That Died In 2018

The last male northern white rhino was named Sudan, he dies in 2018. Yet they want to create babies using his sperm. How is this even possible?

Science is really an amazing thing, people have developed and perfected the cryopreservation (freezing) of semen, eggs, and even embryos. This has mainly been done in humans, horses, cattle, and dogs. So, the protocols and delicate methods are still being perfected by scientists.

Example of frozen semen in a liquid nitrogen storage contained. Credit: monkeybusiness on

It is reported that there was semen harvest post-mortem (after death) from two northern white rhino males. This was then frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen, where it will remain frozen for as long as it is in a liquid nitrogen storage container. This can be used in hundreds of years time, if it is stored and thawed correctly. 

Example of frozen semen stored in straws for use at a later time. They can be used in hundreds of years time as long as it remains stored correctly. Credit: Alex van der Walt, Animals Around The Globe

The IVF Of A Southern White Rhino Offers Hope 

The story of a successful 70-day pregnancy from an embryo transfer in a southern white rhino is groundbreaking. It offers hope for repeating this process using the northern white rhino’s frozen embryos. 

Scientists wanted to perfect this delicate process using southern white rhinos since there are only 30 reported frozen embryos from the northern white rhinos. These embryos are stored in Germany at -196 degrees Celsius.

The semen of a southern white rhino was collected from a male named Athos, who lives at a Zoo in Austria. The semen was then shipped to Italy, where it was used to fertilize white rhino eggs using IVF. 

These two embryos were sent to Kenya at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy. This is the same place where the two northern white rhino females live. They were then implanted into a surrogate mother named Curra. 

An image capturing the team working with a southern white rhino for the embryo transfer. Credit: Jan Zwilling

Unfortunately, Curra and the male she lived with to mimic normal mating behavior were found dead in November. Their cause of death was due to an unrelated bacterial infection, which could be due to extreme rains causing uncharacteristic flooding in their enclosure. 

The team at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy with the southern white rhino embryo. This offers hope for saving the northern white rhino. Photograph: JonJuarez/BioRescue

Curra underwent a post-mortem, which revealed a 70-day-old male rhino fetus, which confirms a successful pregnancy as a result of the embryo transfer. 

The Next Steps For The Northern White Rhino Embryos

The story above is a massive step in the right direction in confirming the scientific process and protocols performed by the teams can result in a successful pregnancy. 

Thomas Hildebrandt, the BioRescue project head, holds the rhino embryo with the rest of the team. Photograph: JonJuarez/BioRescue

The next step is to find a suitable southern white rhino female to be a surrogate and a male to mimic the setup mentioned above. Once this is secured, they will plan and prepare the frozen embryo of the northern white rhino to be placed into this white rhino female surrogate. 

Wrapping It Up

This story offers a glimmer of hope for the functionally extinct northern white rhino as expert teams work extremely hard to save the species. We will follow this story closely as they plan to place the northern white rhino embryo into a surrogate as early as May. 

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