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Endangered rhino species gets a chance at survival with scientific breakthrough

“We are delighted that this partnership gets us one step closer to prevent extinction of the northern white rhinos”

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Endangered rhino species gets a chance at survival with scientific breakthrough
A white rhinoceros and a few months old rhinoceros calf go on the territory of private rhinoceros rearing of J. Hume in South Africa's Northwest Province. There are currently more than 1700 white rhinos living on the farm. Photo: Jürgen Bätz/dpa

Veterinarians have successfully harvested eggs from the last two surviving northern white rhinos, taking them one step closer to bringing the species back from the brink of extinction, scientists said in Kenya on Friday.

Science is the only hope for the northern white rhino after the death last year of the last male, named Sudan, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where the groundbreaking procedure was carried out Thursday.

Two females, Najin, 30, and daughter Fatu, 19, are the only survivors of the subspecies of white rhino, and live under 24-hour armed guard at Ol Pejeta.

However, neither is able to carry a calf. Fatu has degenerative lesions in her uterus and Najin has weak hind legs which could cause complications if she fell pregnant.

But an international consortium of scientists and conservationists has been working on a project costing several million dollars to save the northern white rhino using pioneering artificial reproduction techniques that have taken years of research and development.

Technique developed from scratch –

Endangered rhino species gets a chance at survival with scientific breakthrough
A white rhinoceros and a few months old rhinoceros calf go on the territory of private rhinoceros rearing of J. Hume in South Africa’s Northwest Province. There are currently more than 1700 white rhinos living on the farm. Photo: Jürgen Bätz/dpa

“We were able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes — five from Najin and five from Fatu — showing that both females can still provide eggs and thus help to save these magnificent creatures,” said Professor Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research (IZW) in Germany who helped carry out the procedure.

READ: Africa’s rare giraffes face ‘silent extinction’ threats

“Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch,” he said.

The eggs — which cannot be frozen — were immediately flown to a laboratory in Italy to be fertilised with cryogenically frozen sperm, of which there are samples from four deceased males.

The resulting embryos will then be frozen until they can be transferred into a surrogate mother from the southern white rhino subspecies. The first such rhino embryos using in-vitro techniques were created last year.

The team working on the project also includes Italian biotech laboratory Avantea, Czech zoo Dvur Kralove and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

“We are delighted that this partnership gets us one step closer to prevent extinction of the northern white rhinos. This is particularly touching, given the heartbreaking death of Sudan, the last male, who died of old age last year in Kenya,” said John Waweru, KWS director-general. 

Sudan gained worldwide fame in 2017 after he was featured on the popular dating app Tinder in an effort to raise money for the IVF procedure. 

Wiped out by poaching –

There are five rhino species remaining on earth of which black and white rhinos are found in Africa. The northern white rhino is generally considered a subspecies of white rhino although some scientists believe it to be a sixth species.

Rhinos have few predators in the wild due to their size.

Endangered rhino species gets a chance at survival with scientific breakthrough
A caregiver calming Sudan, the last known male of the Northern White Rhinoceros subspecies, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County, at the foot of Mount Kenya. (Photo by Tony KARUMBA / AFP)

However, demand for rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine and dagger handles in Yemen fuelled a poaching crisis in the 1970s and 1980s that largely wiped out the northern white rhino population in Uganda, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Chad.

READ: Poo Power: How dung biodigester is supercharging farming in Kenya

By 2008, the northern white rhino was considered extinct in the wild.

Modern rhinos have plodded the earth for 26 million years. As recently as the mid-19th century there were more than one million in Africa. The western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011.

Obstacles to success –

If the IVF is successful, scientists say there may be several births of northern white rhino calves, but the approach has its limits.

Eggs can only be collected from the females three times a year, and a lack of genetic diversity could hamper the survival of the species.

However, the consortium of international scientists known as BioRescue is also trying to create artificial sex cells known as gametes via stem cell transformation from the frozen tissue of other, unrelated northern white rhinos, to diversify the gene pool.

According to the team working on the project, the aim is to re-introduce the rhino into secure habitats within the areas they used to roam. This could take up to 70 years.

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Republic of Congo receives funds to protect rainforest

The Republic of Congo is taking a major step towards protecting its valuable rainforest.

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Republic of Congo to save Rainforest

The Republic of Congo is taking a major step towards protecting its valuable rainforest.

The country’s President, Denis Sassou N’Guesso formally signed up for the Central African Forest Initiative and put the country in a position to receive up to $97 million to protect the rainforest better and fight climate change.

The programme’s financing is provided by a coalition of donors: the European Union, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea and the United Kingdom.

During the G-7 summit in August, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to help sub-Saharan African countries fight fires raging in the area.

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Conservation News

Flash flood kills 2, 5 still missing in Kenya

Two survivors from the group alerted park rangers, who sent out a search party.

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Hell's gate national park: flash flood kills 2

Two people have died and five others are missing, or feared dead, after a flash flood Sunday at Kenya’s Hell’s Gate national park, the Kenyan Wildlife Service said. “Seven tourists swept away by the flash floods,” the KWS posted on its Twitter account. “Two bodies recovered while five bodies missing.”

A KWS official earlier told reporters that search and rescue work had been suspended for the night. The missing five were part of a 12-strong group visiting Hell’s Gate – where the 2003 film “Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life” was shot – when they were swept away.

Two survivors from the group alerted park rangers, who sent out a search party. There was no sign of the others, Rift Valley police chief Marcus Ochola told journalists. Another police officer said on condition of anonymity they were missing, “presumed dead”, based on witness accounts of two survivors.

The KWS tweeted that a helicopter was due to arrive from Nairobi to help with the search and rescue operation. The gorge had been closed to the public given the continuing rains. The seven people swept away included “five Kenyan tourists, a local guide and a non-resident”, the KWS added.

Hell’s Gate, named by 19th-century explorers, is around 100 kilometres northwest of the Kenyan capital Nairobi and just south of Lake Naivasha. Its spectacular scenery inspired the Disney animation “The Lion King”. The park, established in 1984, is also home to three geothermal stations.

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Business News

Bishop warns of ecological disaster from illegal logging in DR Congo

The illegal loggers often pick up timber that has been abandoned in the forest, but also fell the slow-growing trees in some areas

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Bishop warns that ecological disaster is in the offing due to illegal logging

A Congolese bishop says an “ecological disaster” is unfolding in the southeast of the Democratic Republic of Congo as illegal logging destined for Chinese buyers is threatening the rare Mukula tree. 

“While the whole world decries the ravages of the Amazon fires, an ecological disaster is underway near us” in the Haut Katanga region bordering Zambia, Monsignor Fulgence Muteba said in a statement on Thursday.

Muteba, the Catholic bishop of Haut Katanga’s Kilwa-Kasenga province, said: “intensive, lawless activities” are threatening the already endangered hardwood, which is used for construction as well as furniture.

Known by botanists under its Latin name of Pterocarpus Chrysothrix, the Mukula, a tree famed for the red tinge of its wood, is threatened with extinction in Zambia, environmentalists say. “Those who exploit this precious natural resource… returned to the area a few weeks ago,” Muteba said, charging that “Chinese subjects and people close to the government” were behind the logging.

The illegal loggers often pick up timber that has been abandoned in the forest, but also fell the slow-growing trees in some areas, Muteba said. The bishop also warned that the “looting… does not in any way take into account the degradation of biodiversity” that it causes.

He said he feared the activity would spread into the Kundelungu National Park, a protected area in Haut Katanga province. Muteba has been pointing the finger at illegal logging by Chinese operators in the province since 2016.

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