The last living members of an extinct species - Jan Stejskal
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The northern white rhino (NWR) is perhaps the rarest mammal at the moment. These magnificent creatures roamed freely in large parts of central Africa for hundreds of thousand years. But, due to demand for rhino horn, they were poached to extinction in the wild. Their presence in nature has not been seen since 2007.
There are only two specimens known to humans at present Najin and Fatu. Both females were born in Dvůr Králové Zoo, Czech Republic, in 1989 and 2000, respectively. Thanks to a breeding program that started in the 1970s, Dvůr Králové Zoo is the only animal park in the world where the northern white rhino has been bred. However, it was back in 2000 when the last calf was born. So experts turned to artificial techniques of reproduction. In the zoo, they tried inserting a hormonal implant and artificially inseminated NWR females. But no pregnancy from these techniques occurred.
So, in the hope that natural surroundings close to their original habitat may prompt their breeding, both Najin and Fatu were transported from Dvůr Králové Zoo to Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya in 2009. Ol Pejeta was chosen by experts as the best place to try to save the NWR by getting the last fertile animals from captivity together with the last animals from the wild. Unfortunately, the specimens from the wild have never arrived to Ol Pejeta. The response of the politicians and local leaders of DR Congo was so limp, that the NWR was poached to extinction in DR Congo before they were translocated.
Currently, the only hope for the NWR lies in artificial techniques of reproduction. Apart from in vitro fertilization and embryo transfer, different forms of genetic engineering like a generation of stem cells that could be later used for generating reproductive cells are being explored. These techniques are known, but most of them have not been performed in rhinos. For this reason, an international consortium called BioRescue was founded to develop suitable technologies and working protocols to rescue the NWR and to provide the opportunity to establish a self-sustaining, genetically healthy NWR population which can be reintroduced to the wild.
With the last two females, the situation of the northern white rhino is obviously critical. Unfortunately, the same applies to most of rhinos in the world. Those living in Indonesia, the Javan and the Sumatran rhino, are on the brink of extinction with estimated population of around 70 individuals in each species. It seems that similar techniques of reproduction that are used for saving the northern white rhino may assist with breeding of the Sumatran rhino too.
The largest population of rhinos can be found in Southern Africa with the southern white rhino being the most numerous. Coincidentally, our currently most common rhino was nearly extinct in the early 20th century when there were reportedly less than 20 specimens left. Today their population figure reaches approximately 18 thousand individuals. It indicates that the white rhino may be resilient to so-called genetic bottleneck – a situation in which the size of population of a species is significantly reduced. And as the southern white rhino made it through its bottleneck a hundred years ago, it nourishes hopes that the northern white rhino could make it through its bottleneck at present.
However, to ensure for any rhino species to survive, it’s necessary not only to protect them in wild areas where they live, but also to reduce demand for rhino horn, especially in countries of East Asia like Vietnam and China. At the same time, it’s necessary put pressure on the countries with the highest consumption of rhino horns to enforce existing laws and to take effective measures to halt the trade in rhino horns. Another important measure is to reduce corruption in the source countries and transit countries, and in the countries where rhino horns are illegally sold.
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