The world’s first test-tube rhinos could be born from animals at Longleat safari park after zoologists embarked on a project to revive the endangered creatures through IVF.
Scientists have collected nine eggs from the park’s three southern white rhinos, who have failed to mate with their only male, and sent them to specialists in Italy.
It is part of a project to save the northern white rhino. Only three animals still exist in the wild, one male and two females, but they are now too old to breed.
However scientists believe that it may be possible to take the eggs and sperm from the remaining animals and create an embryo through IVF which could be implanted in a surrogate mother.
“Effectively the female rhinos would act as IVF mothers, with embryos partly derived from northern white male sperm,” added Darren Beasley, head of animal operations at Longleat.
“If the procedure works, the hope would be that southern white females would carry the developing embryos for up to 18 months before giving birth.”
IVF may be the final hope for rhinos which are being wiped out by illegal poachers for their horn. The remaining three northern white rhino are protected by armed guards at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
Dvůr Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, which owns the animals, has contacted zoos and safari parks around Europe asking for eggs to help them revive the animals, and Longleat is the first in Britain to take part.
The eggs have been sent to the Avantea clinic in Italy, which specialists in assisted reproduction in animals. The team has so far managed to create early embryos from the sperm and eggs of southern rhinos which have been cryogenically frozen but none have been implanted back into a rhino. It is not yet known whether a southern and northern cross would work although in the 1970s the two sub-species accidentally bred at a zoo and a calf was born.
Later this year, the researchers will harvest eggs from the last two female northern white rhinos in Kenya.
Although closely related, southern and northern white rhinos are actually two distinct sub-species which are thought to have begun diverging around a million years ago.
As their name suggests southern white rhino populations are concentrated in the south of Africa where their wild numbers are estimated at around 20,000.
“We are grateful that Longleat joined the programme to save the northern white rhino,” said Jan Stejskal, Coordinator of the efforts to save the northern white rhino from Dvůr Králové Zoo.
“If the procedures in Europe are successful, we hope to attempt harvesting eggs from the last living females in Kenya before the end of this year. This would allow us to produce a pure northern white rhino embryo,” he added.
If the treatment proves successful it is hoped it could be used, alongside conservation programmes, to help boost numbers of other highly endangered species.