In Pictures: Inside the quest to save the northern white rhino

Matjaz Krivic
Najin, one of the last two northern white rhinos left in the world, rests in the afternoon sun with her caretaker Zachary Mutai in Ol Pejeta Conservancy.

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When northern white rhinos Najin, Fatu, Suni, and Sudan were brought to Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy in 2009, the hope was that returning them to their natural habitat might help them regain their zest for life and encourage reproduction.

Little went according to plan. The four imported rhinos did mate, but to no avail.

Why We Wrote This

Kenya’s increased protection of its overall rhino population has led to a steady increase in numbers. But for the northern white rhino, efforts beyond conservation are urgently needed.

Now, Najin and Fatu, both females, are the only northern white rhinos left. Conservation alone can no longer save the species.

Enter the scientists of the BioRescue international consortium, which is developing techniques to resurrect the northern white rhinos, including in vitro fertilization. In the laboratory of one consortium partner, sperm from the deceased male, Suni, was injected into eggs from Fatu, creating 12 northern white rhino embryos. 

The plan is to transfer the embryos into southern white rhino surrogate mothers. “One male and one female are not enough to foster a self-sustaining population,” says consortium researcher Cesare Galli. “If we create four embryos per year, that makes 16 in just four years. If we reach a 50% success rate, we will have eight new animals. With this number we aren’t exactly able to entirely repopulate Kenya, but it’s a start.”

With the help of scientists, the northern white rhino may yet be brought back from the brink.

Click the “deep read” button above to view the full photo essay.

The last two remaining northern white rhinos are kept behind electrified fences and protected by a squad of rangers at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. Up close, females Fatu and Najin seem unperturbed by the wider implications of their subspecies’ imminent extinction, a consequence of widespread poaching, habitat loss, and wars. 

Their nights are spent in their snug straw-covered pens among whistling thorn trees. From about 6 to 9 a.m. they can be found grazing within their approximately 1-square-mile enclosure. 

Najin and Fatu were born at the Safari Park Dvu˚r Králové, a zoo in the Czech Republic. Both are descended from the last northern white rhino male, named Sudan: Najin is his daughter, while Fatu is his granddaughter.

Why We Wrote This

Kenya’s increased protection of its overall rhino population has led to a steady increase in numbers. But for the northern white rhino, efforts beyond conservation are urgently needed.

The two of them, along with Sudan and a male named Suni, were transferred to Ol Pejeta in 2009, in the hope that returning them to their natural habitat might help them regain their zest for life and encourage reproduction.

Little went according to plan. The four imported rhinos did mate, but to no avail. In 2014, Suni died of natural causes. In 2018, Sudan, the last northern white male standing, was euthanized after a series of health problems.

Kenya has the second-largest rhino population in the world, behind South Africa. The species include the smaller black rhino and two subspecies of white rhino – northern and southern. Overall, Kenya’s approach to conservation of the animals has proved successful. For the past few years, the population of black and southern white rhinos has been slowly expanding each year. Last year, the Kenya Wildlife Service reported that not a single rhino had been killed in the country. Researchers say the improvements are due to a combination of factors, including better training of rangers, improved tracking of animals, and stricter laws that call for long prison sentences and fines of $200,000 for convicted poachers. 

But conservation alone cannot save the species. Enter the scientists of the BioRescue international consortium, which is developing techniques to resurrect the northern white rhinos, including in vitro fertilization. In the laboratory of one consortium partner, the Avantea company, sperm from the deceased male, Suni, was injected into eggs from Fatu, creating 12 northern white rhino embryos. The embryos are stored at minus 196 degrees Celsius at Avantea’s facility in Cremona, Italy.  

The plan is to transfer the embryos into southern white rhino surrogate mothers. “One male and one female are not enough to foster a self-sustaining population,” says Cesare Galli, Avantea’s founder and managing director. “If we create four embryos per year, that makes 16 in just four years. If we reach a 50% success rate, we will have eight new animals. With this number we aren’t exactly able to entirely repopulate Kenya, but it’s a start.”

The southern white rhinos were facing a similar situation. But after the South African government put them under special protection, their numbers soared to more than 20,000. With the help of scientists, the northern white rhinos of Kenya may yet be brought back from the brink.

Matjaz Krivic
At the Avantea laboratory in Cremona, Italy, scientists are racing against the clock to create the first northern white baby rhino through in vitro fertilization.
Matjaz Krivic
Of the 16 rhinos buried here, only two died of natural causes; the rest were slaughtered by poachers for their horns.
Matjaz Krivic
Najin and her daughter Fatu, along with their companion Tauvo, a southern white rhino, walk across their 1-square-mile compound, protected by a double electric fence.
Matjaz Krivic
Dr. Cesare Galli pulls out a white rhino embryo from a canister of liquid nitrogen. Avantea laboratory has created 12 such embryos.
Matjaz Krivic
A ranger from the anti-poaching unit works with a tracking dog. Kenya’s crackdown on poaching has helped to boost black rhino populations.
Matjaz Krivic
Rangers keep watch over Ol Pejeta Conservancy, part of a 24-hour armed guard protecting the last two northern white rhinos.
Matjaz Krivic
Najin grazes with Fatu in their enclosure. Rhinos are herbivores and spend much of their day in the wild grazing on shrubs and grasses.
Matjaz Krivic
A researcher at Avantea laboratory tends to her tasks. Scientists expect to have the first in vitro-fertilized embryo implanted in a southern white rhino surrogate mother by the end of the year.
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