Reproduction and stem cell researchers set up a rescue plan for Northern White Rhino

The northern white rhino Nabiré, a 32-year-old female at ZOO Dvůr Králové, sadly died on 27th July, 2015. Photo: Joel Sartore
The northern white rhino Nabiré, a 32-year-old female at ZOO Dvůr Králové, sadly died on 27th July, 2015. Photo: Joel Sartore

International scientists set up a rescue plan for the worldwide last three northern white rhinos (Ceratotherium simum cottoni). The goal is to use the remaining three rhinos and tissue samples from already dead individuals to multiply them into a viable self-sustaining population. For this purpose scientists apply recent findings in reproduction and stem cell research.

Under the direction of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), San Diego Zoo Global (USA), Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Austria) and ZOO Dvůr Králové (Czech Republic) experts developed a rescue plan for the northern white rhino.

The plan is to reproduce northern white rhinos using natural gametes of the last living individuals as well as using induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells). The iPS cells can be gained from rhino somatic cells, for example from the skin. Subsequently, in the future, it might be possible to specifically mature the iPS cells into neurons, heart muscle cells or even gametes. If everything goes according to plan, in vitro fertilised gametes can be introduced into surrogate mothers and fertile northern white rhinos will be produced. This first use of stem cell technology in animal conservation is ground breaking. A success offers new possibilities in the fight against species extinction caused by humans.

At the expert meeting “Conservation by Cellular Technologies“, which took place from 3rd to 6th December in Vienna, international scientists from four continents came to the conclusion that the northern white rhino can only be rescued by using cellular techniques. One of the participants in the meeting, the Japanese stem cell scientist Katsuhiko Hayashi (Kyushu University), has already grown mice out of simple skin cells. An international team of researchers is now working on transferring this model of success to northern white rhinos.

Only three individuals remain after the death of Nola, a 41-year-old northern white rhinoceros at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park on 22nd November, and Nabiré, a 32-year-old female at ZOO Dvůr Králové on 27th July, 2015. The last three individuals, a male and two females, presently live at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Age and reproductive challenges make the possibility of natural reproduction unlikely but the DNA of a dozen individual northern white rhinos has been preserved in genetic banks in Berlin and San Diego. The experts are using this genetic information to bring back the species.

The first studies with the remaining cells of the northern white rhinos have already begun. The complete rescue and research plan will be published as a status report (white paper) next year.



Background information:

The Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research (IZW) is an internationally renowned research institute of the Leibniz Association. With the mission of "understanding and improving adaptability" it examines evolutionary adaptations of wildlife and its resilience to global change, and develops new concepts and measures for conservation. To achieve this, the IZW uses its broad interdisciplinary expertise in evolutionary ecology and genetics, wildlife diseases, reproductive biology and management in a close dialogue with stakeholders and the public.

Founded in 1752 Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna is the oldest zoo in the world. In a unique combination of protected  monument and modern zoo biology it is home to more than 700 animal species, for example the rare Giant Pandas. Four times in succession the Schönbrunn Zoo received an award as  the best zoo in Europe. This unique zoo is scientifically managed and its mission is to interest visitors in the world of animals, and to enhance their awareness for the conservation of threatened wildlife species. Schönbrunn Zoo is not just a place for recreation and to come to see animals, it is also an educational centre, a site for research and teaching, and a strong partner in nature and species conservation projects.

Bringing species back from the brink of extinction is the goal of San Diego Zoo Global. As a leader in conservation, the work of San Diego Zoo Global includes on-site wildlife conservation efforts (representing both plants and animals) at the San Diego Zoo, San Diego Zoo Safari Park, and San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, as well as international field programs on six continents. The work of these entities is made accessible to children through the San Diego Zoo Kids network, reaching out through the Internet and in children’s hospitals nationwide. The work of San Diego Zoo Global is made possible by the San Diego Zoo Global Wildlife Conservancy and is supported in part by the Foundation of San Diego Zoo Global.

 ZOO Dvůr Králové has been one of the most important breeders of African ungulates in the world since the late 1970s. The zoo is dedicated to conserving African wildlife through both ex situ and in situ efforts as well as promoting African culture and wildlife conservation. Four northern white rhinos have been born in the zoo and in 2009 it collaborated with its partners to transfer then four northern white rhinos from Dvůr Králové to Ol Pejeta Conservancy, Kenya, in hope to further prompt their breeding.


Steven Seet
Unit Press & Communications
Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW)
of the Forschungsverbund Berlin e.V.
Alfred-Kowalke-Straße 17
10315 Berlin
P.O.Box 70 04 30, 10324 Berlin
Tel. + 49 - 30 - 51 68 - 125
Cell + 49 - 177 857 26 73
Fax  + 49 - 30 - 51 26 - 104
Christina Simmons
Public Relations
San Diego Zoo Global
p. 619 685 3291  c. 619 318 3348
P.O. Box 120551
San Diego, CA 92112-0551
Dr Thomas Voracek
Veterinary practice Tiergarten Schönbrunn
Seckendorff - Gudent Weg 6
1130 Vienna
Tel: +43 (0)1 - 8772001
Fax: +43 (0)1 - 8772080
Jan Stejskal
Vedoucí komunikace a mezinárodních projektů /
Director of Communication and International Projects
ZOO Dvůr Králové
544 01 Dvůr Králové nad Labem
Czech Republic
Tel: +420 608 009 072 | +420 499 311 226


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