Since October the population of the Northern White Rhino has been fallen by approximately a quarter. That is that two of the population of seven have unfortunately passed. On Sunday Angalifu died at San Diego Zoo from old age, leaving the survival prospects of the Northern White Rhino looking more dire than ever. Although Angalifu was too old to breed, his death has narrowed the gene pool even further, perhaps beyond return. So how do you save a species with a heavily depleted population?
The Northern White Rhinos, Southern counterpart is deemed a conservation success story, having had a close brush with extinction itself. Towards the end of the 19th Century the Southern White Rhino was considered extinct, until a small population numbering between 20 and 50 was discovered. From this small population has arisen an almost unprecedented success story with the current wild population numbering over 20,000, thanks to protective measures, and careful breeding programmes and translocations. Although the Southern White Rhino had a larger existing population than the Northern White Rhino when the population began to be saved, those saving it did not have access to much of the technology and knowledge which we do today.
Advances in technology has opened the path for what many hope will be the last resort in saving species from extinction. Scientists are now capable of cloning species back into existence, much like the plot of a Steven Spielberg blockbuster. A sample of skin was collected from the last known Pyrenean Ibex before it died. In 2009, scientists then successfully cloned the extinct ibex from DNA in the preserved tissue by placing the DNA into egg cells from a domestic goat. Although the only surviving clone died shortly after birth from lung defects, this experiment was an important step and raised hopes that should conservation efforts fail a species, it may be possible with perfect DNA samples to resurrect them.
Unfortunately it looks like the Northern White Rhino will be long extinct before the technology exists to resurrect a whole population of an extinct species, never mind that the ethics which lie behind cloning are extremely controversial. Across the planet institutes such as the Frozen Zoo, the Frozen Ark and CryoBioBank and popping up which are preparing for a different future of conservation. Although highly secretive, these institutes hold several thousand examples of frozen DNA belonging to species under threat. Most of the species kept still have flesh and blood brothers alive, however some are literally the last chance to see a species alive again. The po’ouli is one such example, extinct as of the early 2000’s all that remains is a culture of its cells frozen in time.
Artificial insemination is probably the most commonly used conservation measure for species on the brink. From Pandas to Penguins to the Przewalski’s Horse, the technique has had successes across the taxonomic tree. The only endangered species which routinely undergo artificial insemination currently are pandas and the black-footed ferret, the later of which has gone from being considered extinct in the wild in 1987 to now having several reintroduced populations. Indeed the success of the black-footed ferrets captive breeding programme is evident in the sheer numbers which have been produced; over 8,000 kits.
With the only surviving male of the Northern White Rhinos considered too old to breed, artificial insemination may be the species last remaining hope. There are currently plans to harvest eggs from the female at Dvur Kravlove Zoo and creating an embryo using sperm currently on ice in Berlin. Artificial insemination can be dangerous to the animals involved and there are concerns about whether the remaining females will be suitable candidates for surrogacy.
It is unclear what path conservationists will choose for the surviving Northern White Rhino. Some argue that those resources spent on them may be better used elsewhere, whilst others believe artificial insemination is the way forward. What is apparent however is that if no action is taken, then the species might join the po’ouli in only existing in a frozen laboratory setting.
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