Saving a Species
During the Cold War years, the third world was a place of tremendous diversity in cultural and natural wonders. The Indian subcontinent, the Africa Savannah, the Asian rainforests – third world countries on these continents offered cultures as varied as the Sikhs, Maasai, and the Karen. These cultures survived, and even thrived, while being surrounded by other people. However, the animals who lived in these places, often suffered from their contact with humans. While some already died out, others are on the path to extinction. Scientists are working to save these precious species, while poachers are working to exploit and destroy them. The Northern White Rhino seemed doomed, but now a coalition of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, and Avantea private lab in Italy are working together to save the species.
When discussing poaching, it is necessary to understand the conditions that make it possible and profitable. Countries where poaching of rhinos occurs are often desperately poor. The people which use the products of wildlife trafficking and poaching are usually rich. Although movies and television of portray poachers are rich Europeans wearing monocles, dressed in khaki jackets, with thick white mustaches, carrying old-fashioned hunting rifles, who poach to get trophy heads for their mansions, the reality is much different. The poachers are usually poor Africans, who are just looking for a way to feed their families – sometimes the choice is between starvation and killing a rhino. The poachers’ weapons are AK-47s and rocket launchers. They aren’t looking for trophy heads, but a few small pieces of these noble animals – usually tusks, horns, and a few internal organs. The buyers are Chinese and Vietnamese; they claim to need the items for traditional medicines. This is ridiculous. These medicines are harmful, and don’t actually treat any conditions. Poaching will never be stopped until traditional Asian medicines are discredited, smugglers and buyers are jailed, and Africa’s problems with poverty are addressed.
The last male Northern White Rhino was named Sudan. He died on 19 March 2018 at the ripe old age of 45. He wasn’t killed by a poacher, but died of complications from old age. His loving veterinarians, who cared for him for years, were forced to put him down due to extensive natural skin lesions and deterioration of his muscles and bones. Rhino skin is tough, but heals poorly, and Sudan was in constant pain. Normally this would mean the end of the species – another extinction due to poaching. But, Ol Pejeta, IZW, and Avantea are working overtime to save the Northern White Rhino, and there’s a strong chance they will succeed.
Ol Pejeta has two female Northern White Rhinos, both of whom have reproductive problems, but healthy egg cells. Sudan also provided numerous sperm samples before he died. The plan was executed successfully in April 2019 – sperm from the male and eggs from the female was extracted by IZW and sent to Avantea for combining into embryos. This was also successful. Now the hard part begins.
Ol Pejeta is home to several Southern White Rhinos, which are superficially similar to Northern White Rhinos, but not identical. These differences may prove to be critical in determining whether a Southern White Rhino can carry a Northern White Rhino embryo successfully.
“The two [rhinos] can be distinguished in virtually all measurements (pertaining to skull and tooth dimensions, limb bone lengths and so on), southern white rhinos are generally larger (males can be 2000-2400 kg as opposed to 1400-1600 kg), longer-bodied, have a longer palate, more concave skull roof, and more prominent grooves between their ribs and around the tops of their limbs while northern white rhinos seemingly are longer-limbed, have a straighter back, smaller, lower-crowned teeth and a straighter skull roof (Groves et al. 2010).”
Additionally, scientists know little about the specifics of rhino reproduction. Further complicating the efforts, is the fact that while the Northern White Rhino females were raised in a Czech zoo and easy for scientists to study, the Southern White Rhinos at Ol Pejeta are wild. They are sometimes difficult to even locate in the park, and it is almost impossible to study their reproductive habits closely enough to be able to find time to implant the embryos without intervention. Making the challenge even greater is the fact that female rhinos don’t have natural menstrual cycles. Females release eggs after mating and the release of an egg is required for the other processes which could be hijacked to allow implantation of a Northern White Rhino embryo into a Southern White Rhino female. Instead of waiting for nature to take its course, the scientists are trying novel methods to speed the process. They plan to introduce a sterilized male Southern White to mate with the female Southern White Rhinos, and then quickly grab the female, anesthetize her, and implant the Northern White Rhino embryo.
Third world species are unique and frequently endangered from human activity. By combining science, conservation, hard work, and a little bit of luck, scientists hope to preserve them for future generations. However, even with scientific help, these species will continue to be threatened as long as there is demand for traditional Asian medicine, and impoverished Africans who are willing to poach endangered species to fill that demand.
- October 24, 2020