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Could IVF bring white rhinos back from the edge of extinction?

The world’s most critically endangered species, the northern white rhino, is in such peril that currently only two females remain.

After the last male northern white rhino died in Kenya, all that is left are his daughter and granddaughter, and researchers are concerned that the species may die off with them.

Poaching and habitat destruction have brought the rhinos to the brink of extinction, but there may be hope for recovery as researchers have recently created hybrid embryos and developed them to the point that they are ready to be implanted in a surrogate.

Researchers have been looking into in vitro fertilization (IVF) alternatives as possibilities to conserve and protect northern white rhinos but now for the first time, those efforts could soon come to fruition.

The hybrid embryos were developed by a team of researchers from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and in order to create an embryo ready for implantation, eggs from southern white rhinos were used.

The eggs were then fertilized with frozen northern white rhino sperm. Southern white rhinos are closely related to northern white rhinos and so their genetic pairing is ideal for potential IFV.

The embryo was developed to the blastocyst stage, according to the Daily Mail who reported on the breakthrough.

If the embryos are to be implanted in a surrogate, the researchers stated that southern white rhinos would carry the new rhino hybrids to term.

There are concerns that because only two northern white rhinos remain it will create a limited gene pool and future rhinos will be at risk for a wide array of health problems linked to inbreeding and lack of genetic diversity.

Yet, the new embryos are a good jumping off point and offer at least a glimmer of hope for the species.

The new embryos shouldn’t take away from other conservation efforts, and the Save the Rhino group states that the focus should be on protecting natural habitats and other critically endangered rhino species as well.

“The real fight for the survival of northern white rhinos in their natural habitat was lost over a decade ago,” said Jo Shaw, an African rhino expert with the WWF conservation group, told the Associated Press in March. “Large mammals, like rhinos, should be seen as symbols of large functioning ecosystems and we must focus our efforts and energy on their protection and ongoing survival within these vital landscapes around the globe.”

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

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