Thanks to Lab-Created Embryos, the Nearly Extinct Northern White Rhino Might Live On

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For all the destruction and mayhem that humans have caused around the planet, sometimes we actually do some good things, too. Things like preventing (hopefully) the complete extinction of the northern white rhino.

The last male northern white rhino died in 2018, and only two females, Fatu and Najin, remain of the species. Neither of them are capable of bearing a child. It was believed that once the two females passed away, that would be the end of the northern white rhino.

But scientists recently announced they were able to extract immature eggs from the two remaining females, and the eggs were flown to a laboratory in Italy.


The eggs were then injected with sperm from two dead male northern white rhinos. Only two of the eggs from one of the rhinos developed into viable embryos, and they were immediately frozen. Because Fatu and Najin can’t carry a pregnancy, the embryos will be transferred to a surrogate mother—a southern white rhinoceros.


Jan Stejskal, Director of Communication and International Projects at the zoo in the Czech Republic where Najin and Fatu were born, said:

“Five years ago it seemed like the production of a northern white rhino embryo was [an] almost unachievable goal — and today we have them. The technique for collection of eggs was developed in cooperation with many European zoos and we are happy that this unique cooperation can continue even with attempts at successful embryo transfer.”

Scientists must now transfer the embryos to a surrogate mother and track the embryos’ development into fetuses. From there, scientists still face an enormous uphill climb—the species lacks genetic diversity, and there are very few ways to get it back once there are so few individuals left. Plus, rhinos are slow developing creatures, so to rebuild the population in any meaningful way will take decades.

Sadly, the northern white rhino reached this point mainly due to poaching—they were targeted for their horns, which, though they have no medicinal properties of any sort, are highly prized in traditional Chinese medicine.