The Northern White Rhino – Advanced Reproductive Technologies Provide a Realistic Chance for Saving the Critically Endangered Species


14.3.2017
In early March, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Czech Republic, hosted a meeting of the European Northern White Rhino Working Group. The international experts aim at saving the northern white rhino from the brink of extinction. With the three last individuals incapable of natural breeding, it is the most endangered mammal at present. The meeting in Dvůr Králové proved that collection of eggs, known as ovum pick-up (OPU), from the last two females can be conducted in the foreseeable future. The advanced OPU technique was developed for these large (two tons) creatures in the past two years in the closely related southern white rhino. Gamete collection was combined with advanced in-vitro egg maturation and fertilisation protocols.

Following the publication of the ground-breaking strategic roadmap on how to save this doomed species in the international journal Zoo Biology in May 2016 (Saragusty et al., 2016), a multi-institutional consortium was formed with experts from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW) in Berlin, Germany, Aventea srl. in Cremona, Italy, two Helmholtz institutions in Berlin and Munich, Germany, and Kyushu University, Fukuoka, Japan. The Dvůr Králové Zoo, owner of the last three northern white rhinoceroses, has been coordinating the project and has provided substantial financial support.

„The complex procedure has been performed on twelve female southern white rhinoceroses so far. All oocyte donors are part of the European Endangered Species breeding Programme (EEP). In some excellent female donors we could perform OPU twice without any side effects. Our procedures had no negative impact on their fertility. This procedure can also be used to treat causes of infertility such as cyst formations in the uterus or in the ovary,“ says Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the Department of Reproduction Management at Leibniz-IZW.

The harvested eggs have been regularly sent to Avantea, a laboratory specialising in assisted reproduction of large animals in Cremona, who have been trying to mature and fertilize them and develop embryos suitable for transfer. The first cleavage stages of embryonic development have been achieved already. The promising results of the Avantea team were presented by Professor Cesare Galli, head of Avantea.

The second part of the two-day meeting was run by stem-cell experts from Japan and Germany (Kyushu University, Helmholtz Centre Munich, Max Delbrück Center for Molecular Medicine in the Helmholtz Association Berlin). The experts further refined their approach to produce artificial gametes in-vitro in northern white rhinoceroses.

The last three northern white rhinoceroses reside in Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to where they were transported from Dvůr Králové Zoo in 2009. „With these results, we are quite optimistic that we can attempt to harvest oocytes from the last northern white rhinoceroses within this year,“ says Jan Stejskal, Director of International Projects of Dvůr Králové Zoo.

„To really win this run against time it is very crucial to find major funds in a very short time,“ says Steven Seet, head of Press and Communications at the Leibniz-IZW.

Background information

European zoos that have allowed the Leibniz-IZW team to harvest oocytes from their rhino females: Dvůr Králové Zoo, Zoo Salzburg, Zoo Budapest, Zoo Schwerin, Zoo Chorzow, Zoo Thoiry, Zoo Montpellier, Zoo Poznan, Zoo Pairi Daiza.

The Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research (IZW) is an internationally renowned research institute of the Leibniz Association. With the mission of "understanding and improving adaptability of wildlife" it examines evolutionary adaptations of wildlife and its resilience to global change, and develops new concepts and measures for conservation. To achieve this, the IZW uses its broad interdisciplinary expertise in evolutionary ecology and genetics, wildlife diseases, reproductive biology and reproductive management in a close dialogue with stakeholders and the public. www.leibniz-izw.de

Avantea srl. is a biotechnological SME founded by Cesare Galli and Giovanna Lazzari. They both carried out post-doctoral studies in Cambridge, UK, focusing on reproductive biotechnology techniques: in 1999 they obtained the first bull clone worldwide and in 2003 the first equine clone worldwide. Avantea has set the standard for assisted reproduction in the equine industry and is a world leader in this field. It also carries out a remarkable amount of research in the field of assisted reproduction within national and international research projects. Beyond livestock breeding, research is carried out also in the biomedical field, focusing on the development of animal models for xenotranspantation and medical research, on the investigation of stem cells for basic research and the development of alternative toxicological tests for the industry. These R&D activities, strongly integrated, are the hallmark of Avantea, making it a leading center for the development and application of reproductive biotechnologies. www.avantea.it

ZOO Dvůr Králové has been one of the most important breeders of African ungulates in the world since the late 1970s. The zoo is dedicated to conserving African wildlife through both ex situ and in situ efforts as well as promoting African culture and wildlife conservation. Four northern white rhinos have been born in the zoo and in 2009 it collaborated with its partners to transfer then four northern white rhinos from Dvůr Králové to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya, in the hope to improve their breeding.

Fotogalerie