Virus stalls work to keep alive a rare rhino subspecies

Full Screen
1 / 3

Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.

FILE - In this Friday, Aug. 23, 2019 file photo, female northern white rhinos Fatu, 19, right, and Najin, 30, left, the last two northern white rhinos on the planet, are fed some carrots by a ranger in their enclosure at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya. Groundbreaking work to keep alive the nearly extinct northern white rhino - population, two - by in-vitro fertilization has been hampered by travel restrictions caused by the new coronavirus. (AP Photo/Ben Curtis, File)

NANYUKI – It’s not quite a case of coitus interruptus, but efforts to create a very special baby are definitely on hold. Blame the pandemic.

Groundbreaking work to keep alive the nearly extinct northern white rhino subspecies — population, two — by in-vitro fertilization has been stalled by travel restrictions. And time is running out.

The two northern white rhinos are female. The goal is to create viable embryos in a lab by inseminating their eggs with frozen sperm from dead males, then transfer them into a surrogate mother, a more common southern white rhino.

As of January, three embryos had been created and stored in liquid nitrogen. But further key steps now have to wait.

“It has been disrupted by COVID-19, like everything else,” said Richard Vigne, managing director of Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, home of the two remaining rhinos. “That is, the process of collecting more eggs from the females as well as the process of developing the technique to introduce the northern white rhino embryo into the southern white rhino females.”

It’s an international effort that includes conservationists from Kenya, the Czech Republic, Germany and Italy — many affected by closed borders or restricted travel.

For those involved in the effort, acutely aware of time, the delay can be painful. The procedure to create viable embryos has proven to be safe, they say, and can be performed regularly before the animals become too old.

In January, the transfer of the embryos to surrogates had been planned for the coming months. In March, the plan had been to collect another round of eggs from the two remaining females.