In a 700-acre enclosure within Ol Pejeta Conservancy Park, roam three northern white rhinoceroses – Sadu, Najin and Fatu. Due to heavy poaching and loss of habitat, these three white rhinos are the last of their kind. Conservation efforts have restored the numbers of their cousin, the southern white rhinos, but unfortunately the same can’t be said for them.
And with reproduction efforts unsuccessful, the future of the northern white rhinoceros is bleak. An unfortunate reality shared by many other endangered species.
Whilte conservation efforts provide hope to save these endangered species, a different approach offers new hope for the future of endangered animals. Covered in A New Hope For Conservation Part 1, a clouded leopard cub was birthed through artificial insemination. Using frozen/thawed semen, this was a first for the vulnerable species. In the bigger outlook of conservation, it was a step towards a different route of preservation. Beyond artificial insemination, there lies the possibility of using induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells to augment breeding populations.
In 2016, Katsuhiko Hayashi at Kyushu University in Japan successfully engineered artificial egg cells from reprogrammed mouse skin cells. The egg cells were used to give birth to healthy and fertile pups. His lab is part of a consortium attempting to apply this breakthrough to the northern white rhinoceros. This consortium of conservation and scientific organizations are attempting to produce eggs from iPS cells converted to gametes, which would then be fertilized in vitro with frozen semen. The fertilized egg would then be carried to term by a closely related animal, possibly a south white rhinoceros.
And while this effort is underway, similar efforts are underway to collect cells and DNA from endangered species. The Frozen Ark is an organization set on collecting and cataloguing the DNA and cells of endangered animals before they are extinct. Started by Professor Bryan Clarke and his wife Dr. Ann Clarke, the two were inspired after witnessing the extinction of a hundred species of snails during a study on evolution biology. Today, with over 700 samples stored from an assortment of endangered animals, the Frozen Ark continues to collect samples in anticipation of a future where conservation efforts may depend DNA cellular samples.
These organizations and their efforts will be vital as the extinction rates continue to increase. These new ideas and breakthroughs, partnered with ongoing conservation efforts, may yet provide salvation for endangered animals.