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Saving a Species

Updated: Feb 23

Scientists Who Will Not Accept Failure

Ol Pejeta conservancy in Kenya is home to the last two remaining Northern White Rhinos in our universe: Najin who is 35 years old and her daughter Fatu, 24.

Under constant care by veterinarians and keepers, and protected 24/7 from potential poachers by armed rangers, Najin and Fatu hold the only hope for the species to avoid extinction.

The Northern White Rhino is a subspecies of the White Rhino that includes the Southern White Rhino subspecies, also endangered due to poaching, but whose populations are still decent .  The other common species of rhino is the Black Rhino. While both white and black rhinos are actually colored grey - they are distinguished by their mouth shape, as the white rhinos are grazers and the black rhinos are browsers. (White is actually a misinterpretation of Wide, which refers the square-lipped shape of the jaw).  White rhinos are also much larger than the blacks. When you spot a mother and baby in the wild you can also easily determine the species- white rhino babies tend to run in front of their mothers, while black rhino babies follow. Northern Whites ranged over parts of Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic and the DRC (Congo).  Years of civil war and widespread poaching of rhinos for their horns has devastated the population, resulting in zoos becoming involved in preservation of the species.

15 years ago there were 7 remaining Northern Whites: 5 in Dyur Kralove Zoo in the Czech Republic, and a male and female in San Diego Wild Animal Park.  Breeding attempts at the zoos were futile; Scientists and conservationists decided to move 2 males and Fatu and Najin back to a more natural native habitat with the best climate and grasslands that would provide more favorable breeding conditions.  Ol Pejeta was chosen for its environment, ability to protect the rhinos and its proximity to Nairobi. After a few attempts at breeding, including bringing in a Southern White Rhino male, it was determined that the two females were incapable of natural reproduction, although they were producing healthy eggs.  Conservationists concerned with the species' survival had long collected sperm from 4 males before they died (the last male died in 2018) and have now successfully created 30 viable embryos, that can be stored in liquid nitrogen for a long time.

The search was on to find surrogates, but first the scientists experimented with implanting an embryo in a younger Southern White Rhino in 2022.  However, about 2 months after the in vitro fertilization (IVF),13 year old Curra died tragically from a bacterial infection caused by heavy rains flooding her enclosure.  Postmortem it was discovered that she was successfully  carrying a 70 day old Southern White fetus.  This was the first ever attempt at IVF.  Scientists wanted to prove their approach would work before they used up some of the existing embryos.  The rush is now on to find proper surrogates to carry one of the Northern White Rhino embryos.

Time is an issue due to Fatu and Najin’s ages.  Rhino life expectancy is 50-55 years.  It is important for the offspring to live together with Najin and Fatu for years in order to learn the social behavior of their kind.  The IVF project is led by BioRescue, a consortium initiating and leading the scientific rescue mission of the Northern White Rhino, employing advanced assisted reproduction technologies and stem cell associated techniques.  BioRescue has just recently teamed up with Colossal Biosciences (“Colossal”), the world’s first de-extinction company.  The partnership will develop a roadmap for future rescue missions of other endangered species using the world leading expertise of both organizations. 

Seeing Rhinos in the Wild or at Conservancies

Bob, Dennus, Julie and I had the opportunity to visit Najin and Fatu in 2020 when we visited the conservancy.  What a special treat it was to see them, but even more exciting to hear the progress that has been made in the preservation of the species in just 3 years’ time.

The surrogate IVF procedure is expected to begin within the next 6 months, so hopefully in 2025 we will be seeing a Northern White baby.  The gestation period for rhinos is 16 months. The belief is that the same ground-breaking science and technology can be implemented for Sumatran and Javan rhinos, two other critically endangered species with each having under 100 rhinos left.  Stretching even further is the firm belief that other species can be saved from extinction from the millions of dollars donated and the thousands of hours devoted by these researchers who will not accept failure.

Ami Vitale, a wildlife photographer who has been documenting the rhinos’ plight for 15 years is confident that “We will see, in our lifetime, Northern White Rhinos roaming the plains of Kenya.”

Latitude Expeditions’ support for conservation and protection of Rhinos comes from direct support of two charitable organizations, Mission Wildlife in San Diego and International Rhino Foundation (IRF) headquartered in Washington D.C.  We organized IRF’s first VIP donor tour through South Africa as an immersive 12 day safari. Participants are treated to several behind-the-scenes experiences, many not available to the public and carefully curated to inspire individuals that are interested in actively participating in conservation efforts.  Guests will walk in the footsteps of rhino rangers, participate in K9 training activities, and help to monitor white and black rhinos in the field.  An added bonus will be to learn about another endangered species, the rare pangolin, where they and learn about programs to save them from the black market and rehabilitate them to return to the wild.  The donors will work directly with reserve managers, researchers and veterinarians on- hands on collaring, ear tagging and potentially rhino horn rimming exercises as a means to further protect these magnificent animals from poaching. 

This trip showcases the great progress being made in conservation and protection from the funds these guests have generously donated to IRF.  Latitude and IRF intend to repeat the trip at least annually to meet the overwhelming demand we had for the inaugural itinerary.

Contact Linda to learn more about joining a rhino or other specialized conservation trip: or 760-550-1214

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