With the last male Northern white rhino suffering from a severe illness, the fate of the species looks set to be sealed.
At the age of 45, the last male, named Sudan, has lived longer than life expectancy. Multiple attempts to get Sudan to mate with the two remaining females have failed.
Sudan’s fate has helped generate interest in developing rhino IVF, so that ‘test-tube’ rhinos could be used to save other struggling rhino species.
It is likely that the Northern white rhino is destined for extinction. In the unlikely scenario that rhino IVF is developed within their lifetimes, the offspring will be all born from a very narrow gene pool.
This severe genetic bottleneck means that there would be very little diversity between each generation. Bottlenecks like these often make species vulnerable to disease. As populations shrink, previously rare alleles, including disease-causing alleles, become more common. The inevitable inbreeding within small population ensures that the frequency of ill rhinos increases – making extinction more likely.
Development of rhino IVF has been challenging. Although well-developed in humans, the environment of the rhino’s uterus needs to be well understood before the technique has widespread success in rhinos. Over the past 15 years, less than ten births have occurred via IVF. Complicated techniques take time to develop, so despite best efforts, rhino IVF may yet be a long way away.
It said that 20 unrelated individuals are needed to make a genetically viable population through the IVF technique – meaning that there is nowhere near enough individuals left to save the Northern white rhino.
Whilst rhino IVF may be developed too late for the Northern white rhino, other struggling rhino species, including the Sumatran rhino, could be potentially saved from extinction via this technique. There are still at least a hundred Sumatran rhinos left, and if conservation efforts can maintain this small remaining population whilst IVF is developed, the species may have a long-term future.
You can read more about the Sumatran rhino here.
For more on rhino conservation, visit Save the Rhino