Cesare Galli unscrewed the lid of a liquid nitrogen canister and pulled out a sample labeled “Fatu NWR x Suni NWR, 9. 4. 21.” We were afforded a glimpse of an invaluable rarity: a pair of northern white rhinoceros embryos created in March and April at a lab in Cremona, Italy.
The Italian biotech company Galli founded, Avantea, is part of the Berlin-based organization BioRescue, an international consortium of scientists and conservationists devoted to saving the northern white rhino, which can live for up to 40 years, from extinction. Only two females of the species remain: Fatu, 21, and her 31-year-old mother, Najin, both under guard and behind three electric fences at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.
The next-to-last male northern white rhino, Suni, died in 2014, but his genetic matter lives on, preserved by forward-looking scientists. Galli and his team combined Suni’s sperm with Fatu’s eggs in a process they pioneered with elite-level horses two decades ago. They were the first scientists to artificially impregnate a mare with an embryo created by introducing a sperm cell directly into the cytoplasm of an egg cell.
Now nine northern white rhino embryos are stored at minus 196 degrees Celsius in Galli’s lab. They await implantation into southern white rhino surrogate mothers, four of which are also at the conservancy in Kenya. After COVID-related delays, the first embryos are expected to be inserted sometime this year. A rhino’s typical gestation period is 16 to 18 months.
“To the people asking ‘When?’,” Galli says, referring to those who, like him, eagerly anticipate the first birth in captivity of a northern white rhino calf in 21 years, “I reply, ‘In five years’ time.’ I’ve been saying that for a couple of years. It is a complicated process with no guarantees.”
But it’s a long road from functional extinction, with just two females in existence, to a population that is out of danger.
“One male and one female are not enough to foster a self-sustaining population,” says Galli. “If we create four embryos per year, that makes 16 in just four years. If we reach a 50 percent [pregnancy] success rate, like we have with horses, we will have eight new animals. With this number we aren’t exactly able to repopulate Kenya, but it’s a start.”
Galli says that southern white rhinos once faced similarly dire odds for survival. They were thought to be extinct until 1895, when a population of fewer than 100 were found in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, and the government put them under special protection. After more than a century of conservation efforts, Galli says, “their number soared to over 20,000.″
Galli adds, “The northern white rhinos had the additional misfortune of all the wars raging in the middle of their natural habitats,” in countries including Uganda, Chad, Sudan, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Fatu and Najin seem unperturbed by the wider implications of their species’ demise. Inside their 1.1 square mile enclosure, they are, says their immensely spirited head caregiver at the conservancy, Zachary Mutai, “happy slaves of routine.”
Before the heat of the day, they spend hours grazing. Walking behind them, as we did, one risks being on the wrong end of an occasional wet fart. As the temperature soars, mother and daughter fill their bellies with water and lie down to rest, only to resume their grazing when it gets a bit cooler. They adore rain, impromptu mud baths, and sharpening their horns on nearby trees.
They also like to eat. “Food is very important,” Mutai says. “Bales of straw get Najin and Fatu through the dry seasons, while carrots are their equivalent of a quick fix.” And by quick fix, he means four and a half pounds each per day.
By night, Fatu and Najin sleep in snug straw-covered pens among whistling thorn trees.
Najin, Fatu, and the late Suni were born in the Czech Republic at the Dvůr Králové Safari Park, which remains their legal owner. Both females are descended from the last northern white rhino male, Sudan, who was born in the wild but also lived in the Czech park. Najin is his daughter and Fatu his granddaughter.
The four rhinos were transferred to Ol Pejeta in 2009 in the hope that a return to their natural habitat might help them regain their zest for life and reproduction.
Little went according to plan. The rhinos mated but produced no offspring. Suni died within a few years, followed by Sudan in 2018, both of natural causes.
Between the deaths, in 2015, Czech veterinarians determined that Najin and Fatu were incapable of propagating in the natural fashion. Years in a cage had weakened Najin’s hind legs to such an extent that she could not withstand a male’s weight. An ultrasound scan detected a large stomach tumor near her left ovary. Fatu was diagnosed with pathological degenerations in her womb.
Caring for these last rhinos “is an expensive project,” says Richard Vigne, CEO of Ol Pejeta. “Many people are saying it’s not worth it, saving a single species while thousands of others are dying out. We disagree.”
Vigne says the northern white rhino project has already brought tremendous global awareness to animal extinction issues. The attention Sudan alone garnered helped generate awareness campaigns about the plight of the species. It’s a win for the conservancy, a former cattle ranch that has demonstrated its success in reviving dwindling species.
Ol Pejeta founded the Sweetwaters Game Reserve in 1988 and brought in 20 critically endangered black rhinos. The move coincided with a Kenya Wildlife Service ruling that all black rhinos should be moved to game reserves. Today, there are 145 of the rhinos, making Ol Pejeta the largest black rhino sanctuary in Eastern Africa.
Kenya’s black rhino population has grown annually by 5 to 7 percent in recent years, and 2020 marked a first in two decades: Not a single rhino of any species is known to have been shot in the country.
Two factors help explain this success. A wildlife hunting ban put in place in the 1970s could not prevent poaching but slowed it. And a 2013 law made possession of rhino horn and elephant tusk punishable by life imprisonment or a fine of 20 million Kenyan shillings — roughly $185,000 in a country where the typical annual salary is $7,000.
Yet poaching remains an intractable problem across Africa, driven by crime syndicates feeding demand primarily from Asia. “They’re hunting them for their horns,” Zachary Mutai says, holding a thin fiber plucked off the smaller of Najin’s two horns.
A kilo, or just over two pounds, of rhino horn can fetch $65,000 in some Asian countries because it’s prized for its purported medicinal benefits — it supposedly cures everything from hangovers to impotence. In service of this demand, 1,324 rhinos were poached in 2015. In 2020, 435 rhinos were killed, 394 of them in South Africa.
Twenty rhinos were killed in Ol Pejeta over the years. That harsh reality is indicated by tombstones in a cemetery in the preserve. “Born May 17, 1996. Died February 22, 2016,” reads the inscription on the grave of a female black rhino named Ishirini. “Rhino likely killed by use of poisoned arrows. The security team found her writhing in pain with the horns already chopped off. She was 12 months pregnant.”
“When you eliminate a species from the ecosystem, you risk throwing everything off balance,” says Cesare Galli. “Rhinos are maintaining the balance. They are also an iconic species. And the danger to their survival comes exclusively from us. It is our duty to make amends.”
The number of rhinos poached at Ol Pejeta Conservancy is 20, not 14, as previously noted. And the death of the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, generated awareness campaigns about the plight of the species, not donations to the conservancy, as previously noted.
Maja Prijatelj-Videmšek is a journalist at Slovenia’s biggest daily newspaper, DELO. Boštjan Videmšek is the author of several books and an award-winning journalist who has reported from several war zones in the last 25 years. Matjaž Krivic is an award-winning documentary photographer from Slovenia. For the past two decades, he has traveled the world capturing stories about social and environmental change.