We met Professor Thomas Hildebrandt in Berlin in 2020. He leads the Reproduction Management Department at the The Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (IZW), one of the world’s leading entities in research for conservation.

We were there to film him and his team while at work and were immediately charmed by his crooked lab coat, his distinctive East German accent, and his passion for animals and science. He showed us his laboratories and the machinery his team works with, and in one of them, we had our first contact with the BioRescue project. He proudly led us to an incubator with an integrated camera showing a developing rhinoceros embryo.

Hildebrandt told us they could monitor up to six embryos with that technology, and that the software it uses creates real-time black and white images that allows them to study the embryos and select the ones with the highest guarantees. While we filmed Hildebrandt inspecting the images, he explained the level of complexity of the project.

In the past 10 years, they had to obtain genetic material from the only two surviving northern white rhinos on earth, Najin and Fatu.

They are both female, mother and daughter, but cannot carry a pregnancy to term. They have also had to search for genetic material from males of the same species worldwide to create those embryos.

Additionally, they are looking for southern white rhinoceroses that could be surrogate mothers for the embryos created in the laboratory.

It is a race against time.

They need a northern white rhinoceros baby—or several—to be born to save the species; but those calves also have to “learn” to be a northern white rhinoceros, and they can only learn that from Najin and Fatu, in Kenya. As of today, Najin is 34 years old and her daughter Fatu is 23. A rhinoceros of their species lives on average between 40 and 50 years, and pregnancy lasts 16 months.

After we left the institute, we started dreaming of traveling to Kenya and meeting Najin and Fatu. Three and a half years later, last November, we entered Ol Pejeta Conservancy with Hildebrandt and his team, but in a much more dramatic situation than we had ever imagined. Curra, a young southern white rhinoceros, had died from a bacterium, just like the male with whom she shared
an enclosure. Her death had a special significance: a few months earlier, the BioRescue team had performed an embryo transfer on her.

The embryos used were from her own subspecies, southern white rhinoceros— not from the nearly extinct northern white rhinoceros—but if the implantation were successful, it would represent a gigantic step forward: it would open the doors to the implantation of embryos of northern white rhinoceroses from frozen genetic material of this subspecies.

Curra was pregnant at the time of her death, and the bacterium killed the baby as well. But after testing its DNA, it was clear that the little foetus was a product of Hildebrandt and his team’s techniques.

The team now plans to start the process to perform a new implantation in a rhinoceros in the coming months. All members of the consortium hope to see the first northern white rhinoceros born within the next three to six years.

And they dream of the possibility of having an entire herd grazing at the foot of Mount Kenya in two decades.