The northern white rhino is the world’s most endangered mammal. The species came closer to extinction in 2018 when Sudan, the last known living male died in Kenya’s Ol Pejeta Conservancy at the age of 45.

The only surviving northern white rhinos now are Najin and Fatu, mother and daughter, which also live at the site.

Against all odds, an international consortium of scientists and researchers have come up with a rather extraordinary scheme to save this iconic species. Among them are Dr. Thomas Hildebrandt and his team, from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW) in Berlin, who we have been following for some time now. In the past years, they have harvested eggs from the two remaining females, artificially inseminated those using frozen sperm from deceased males and created three viable northern white rhino embryos, increasing the chances of successfully producing offspring.

Najin and Fatu are both unable to carry a pregnancy, so the plan is to use southern white rhinos – which there are many more of – as surrogates. To do so, the team must prove that the procedure is safe. Not only for the females, but also for the embryos.

“We have only three. Before we touch them we have to be absolutely sure that there is a very high chance of success,” says Dr. Hildebrandt after a procedure to collect oocytes in Schwerin.

But there is still a lot they don’t know about the reproductive system of rhinos.

Until now, attempts to put embryos in southern white rhinos in zoos have failed, but the team remains upbeat at the prospects to revive the northern white rhino from disappearing from the planet. The year of the pandemic has not been easy on the people involved in this pioneering conservation project.

Travelling has been disrupted and science funding diverted. But in the meantime, this group of scientists have focused on fine tuning their methods and tools and developing new approaches to be better prepared for future expeditions, when travel restrictions are over.