Science to the rescue of a dying rhino species

Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world, was put to sleep on March 19, 2018. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

What you need to know:

  • Sudan, is in demand both from the two ladies he lives with and the scientists trying hard to ensure the survival of his species. Inside, the story of the scientific struggle to save.
  • At 44, Sudan, the last male northern white rhino in the world, no longer has the vigour and vitality of youth, but conservationists and researchers at Ol Pejeta still have hope in him.
  • The survival of his species depends on him and the two females next to his pen, but there is little romantic action between them other than the occasional dart-eyed glances. Can science reverse the fate of these gentle beasts?

It is not that Sudan never wanted to have his own offspring. No. He did. Badly. Rangers at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where he lives together with two female northern white rhinos, have several times espied him staring lusciously — but, unfortunately, helplessly — at the ladies across his enclosure.

Scientists also know that the 44-year-old has tried to mount the females for years now, and are worried that he has not been blessed with a calf yet.

Let’s face it. At 44, Sudan has defied the odds to become the oldest northern white rhino in captivity, and the effects of his advanced age are beginning to show. His skin is no longer soft and taut, but a wrinkly and loose mess. His hind legs no longer have the muscle to carry his weight during his romantic escapades, and, to top it all off, his sperm count is now low and of poor quality.

Yes, Sudan is not the sprightly young fellow he was a few years ago. The energy is gone, the moves ebbed, the romance a bit uncomfortable and embarrassingly shaky.

“Although he can still roll in the mud without assistance, there are parts of his body that he cannot reach, and therefore we have to assist him,” says Zachary Mutai, the conservancy’s keeper.

Yet, every day at the slightest opportunity, Sudan leans over to the northern wall of his pen for a quick, furtive glance at the ladies he cannot have (Najin, 28 and Fatu, 17) as they feast on Lucerne (a forage crop), hay and supplements.

But, even as the odds dim his chances of successfully mating, conservationists still have hope in him. The survival of his species depends on Sudan, for he is the last of the males in the whole wide world.

The pressure to perform is, interestingly, not on him, but his handlers. The consequences of him dying without bearing a son are hard to fathom.

Sudan, Najin and Fatu, the three prized rhinos at Ol Pejeta, are under the constant watch of a group of heavily armed guards as the northern white, which once roamed the continent in its thousands, is almost extinct.

“They were first brought to the conservancy from the Czech Republic,” explains Mutai. “They were four. Unfortunately, one male died in 2014 of natural causes.”

Sudan’s guards and keepers have watched him creep toward senility, trying not to think about what lies ahead. Suni, one of the last three remaining northern white males, died in October 2014 at the age of 34. A few months later, the other northern white male died in the American city of San Diego.

The dim fate of the species came to the fore earlier this year when the conservancy enrolled Sudan on Tinder, a dating app, in a bid to raise money for a northern white rhino breeding campaign.

“I don’t mean to be too forward, but the fate of my species literally depends on me,” reads his profile on Tinder. “I perform well under pressure. I like to eat grass and chill in the mud. No problems. 6ft tall and 5,000 pounds, if it matters.”

BREED NATURALLY

Sudan, with one of the two female rhinos two ladies he lives with and the scientists trying hard to ensure the survival of his species. PHOTO
| JOSEPH KANYI

Tinder users in 190 countries can access Sudan’s profile in 40 languages. The app describes him as the “most eligible bachelor in the world”.

If users swipe right (typically a sign of interest on the app) they will be directed to a campaign page to raise $9 million (Sh900 million) to develop reproductive technologies for the species, including in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), where fertilisation is done by manually combining an egg and sperm in a laboratory dish to form an embryo, which is then transferred to the uterus.

This, for researchers, seems to be the most viable way for conception since, like Sudan, the two surviving female rhinos are unable to breed naturally. Age, they think, is a huge factor since female rhinos start breeding from age six or seven.

“When we performed a reproductive soundness assessment on the two animals, we realised that they both had compromised uteri such that conception cannot occur,” says Dr Stephen Ngulu, the conservancy’s veterinarian.

“We also discovered that the older female has weak hind legs, further compromising her chances of carrying a pregnancy (which lasts 17 months) to term,”

But for IVF to be performed, female gametes (ova or egg cells) have to be collected from the animals, a scientific procedure that has never been tried on rhinos. This is where, Dr Ngulu explains, research is now concentrated.

“Since the procedures and protocols for collecting these eggs are not known, everything we are doing now is experimental,” he says.

Scientists in Germany, the US and South Africa are currently trying to perfect a procedure known as ovum pick-up, which involves collecting eggs and maturing them in a laboratory.

“Once they are satisfied that the procedure is seamless, another trial will be conducted on the ground on the female southern white rhinos that we have before doing it on the female northern whites,” Dr Ngulu explains. “The ultimate plan is to fuse the sperms and the eggs to create an embryo, which will be implanted in a surrogate mother.”

The ovum pick-up, however, is not only expensive, but also an intricate procedure that requires meticulous techniques to ensure that the animal is not left with any injuries.

“You cannot afford to go wrong when you only have two surviving animals in the whole world,” says Dr Ngulu. “You need to perfect it before you attempt it.”

Compared to females, obtaining reproductive material from males is a much easier process, “To collect the sperm cells, we conduct electro-ejaculation, a procedure in which electric shock waves into the animal’s body trigger ejaculation.”

Sudan underwent the first electro-ejaculation in 2014 and his sperm cells are stored in banks in Europe and Kenya.

“We hope that before the end of the year, we will attempt ovum pick-up on the southern white rhinos,” says Dr Ngulu.

As the world’s wildlife faces increasing threats — a surge in poaching whose effects are made worse by the loss of native habitats — extinction is still often discussed as an abstraction. It is a word used often to prompt action, something that could happen, something that is in the future, not now.

But scientists estimate that hundreds — perhaps thousands — of species are becoming extinct every year. In 2011, the western black rhino was classified as extinct. That same year, a sub-species of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam. And, barring a scientific breakthrough, the northern white rhino, the second-largest mammal in central Africa, will be gone soon, too.

When Sudan was born in 1972 in what is now South Sudan, there were about 1,000 northern white rhinos scattered across central Africa.

Unfortunately, they were concentrated in countries plagued by war — Sudan, Congo and the Central African Republic. When fighting broke out, the rhinos were also victims, killed for their meat or their horns, or sometimes exchanged for money or arms.

FIGHTING EXTINCTION

If the IVF procedures are successful, they will allow researchers to reintroduce a viable population of this species back into the wild.

“It will not only give us an opportunity to save these rhinos, but also other animals facing extinction,” says Dr Ngulu. “It may even help us explore ways of bringing back those that are already extinct.”

Besides IVF, scientists are also exploring the possibility of growing reproductive cells from stem cells, which have the potential to develop into many different types of cells in the body.

Although artificial insemination would be another option to explore, it may not be the most viable.

“Artificial insemination can work. But we will have to use bigger volumes of sperm cells just to reproduce one embryo, something we cannot afford to do with the limited volume available. With IVF, you only need one sperm cell to fertilise an egg, therefore it is a better option for us,” the veterinarian explains.

Should everything go as planned, Dr Ngulu says the first on-ground attempts for the ovum pick-up could happen before the end of the year.

“As we speak, we do not have any northern white rhino female eggs. That means that our eyes and focus are on these two females, because should anything happen to them all our efforts will have been wasted.”

What if Sudan dies today, we ask?

“We have a contingency plan for that. At his age, he has lived his life. Therefore, if he dies today, all I can do is reach his carcass within three hours and harvest the remaining sperm cells, for future use,” Dr Ngulu responds.

For now, Najin, Fatu, and Sudan will continue to live under 24-hour armed guard in Ol Pejeta. They are the last of a dying breed, and they do not know it.

Interested in him?

Residence: Sudan lives on a 10-acre piece of land where he is under 24-hour surveillance by a team of caretakers during the day and armed guards at night. His horn was chopped off to deter poachers, although it has begun to grow back.

Marital status: He was separated from the two females, Najin and Fatu, following unsuccessful natural breeding attempts. “We had to separate them because the two females were becoming aggressive to Sudan, as they wanted to mate,” says Zachary Mutai, the conservancy’s keeper.

Diet: As part of his daily routine, Sudan is fed twice a day — at 7am and 7pm. During this time, he is given Lucerne, a forage crop, two kilogrammes of carrots, six kilos of horse cubes (hay) and two ripe bananas.

HOW WE GOT HERE

Widespread poaching dropped the wild animal’s numbers from more than 2,000 in 1960 to 15 in 1984 and only five in 2017. Although back up to 30 in 1993, the northern whites were declared extinct in the wild in 2008, as all the remaining five are in captivity. The southern whites, on the other hand, are found in eight African countries — Malawi, Mozambique, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa.

Today there are an estimated 20,400 of them, up from 100 in 1985. Poaching, however, remains a major challenge. Over 1,200 rhinos were killed in 2014 in South Africa alone, compared to 13 seven years earlier, in 2007.

Rhino horn is now sold for Sh6.5 million ($65,000) per kilogramme in Southeast Asia, up from Sh30,000 ($300) in the 1990s. That is around Sh3 million ($30,000) a pound — making it a prize for poachers in Kenya, where the average yearly income is less than Sh300,000 ($3,000).

 

Source: Save the Rhino, World Wildlife Fund

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