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San Diego Zoo makes progress in ambitious effort to save endangered rhino species

Northern White Rhino may have hope, yet
Posted at 6:54 PM, Dec 23, 2020
and last updated 2020-12-23 21:54:34-05

ESCONDIDO, Calif. (KGTV) -- The San Diego Zoo is now five years into its ambitious attempt to save a critically endangered species, the Northern White Rhino, from extinction.

There are currently just two Northern White's still alive, both females who are unable to give birth. They live at a preserve in Kenya.

“It’s the only thing that keeps me going, thinking that this is possible and that we can save a species," says Dr. Marisa Korody, part of the team working on the project.

The concept sounds like a science fiction novel. The plan is to take skin cells from Northern White rhinos preserved at the Safari Park's Frozen Zoo. Using Nobel Prize-winning technology developed 14 years ago, Dr. Korody is working to use those skin cells to make stem cells. Stem cells can then be converted into any other kind of cell. In this case, the genetically pure Northern White Rhino sperm and eggs that could be used for in vitro fertilization, with Southern White Rhinos, a close genetic cousin of the Northern White, to use as surrogate mothers.

Dr. Korody says her team has made great progress, including successfully turning skin cells from Angilifu, a male Northern White rhino who died at the Safari Park in 2014, into stem cells and turning those stem cells into heart cells. They even recorded incredible video of those living heart cells beating in a petri dish.

“We basically jumped up and down in the lab. That was probably one of the most exciting days we’ve had. We were pulling people in from the hallways to say, come look and see what we did.”

Along with the cell portion of the project, tremendous progress has also been made with the in vitro research. This fall, the Zoo celebrated the first birthdays of two Southern White Rhinos who were born using the technology the team hopes to use with the Northern White embryos.

“These two, Edward and future, are so healthy, so happy, so well-adjusted. I don’t have children of my own, but I think it must be the same kind, on some scale, of pride you feel in your own children," said Dr. Barbara Durrant, who leads that portion of the project.

When ABC 10News first began covering the Northern White Rhino plan in 2015, Dr. Durrant estimated it would be ten years before a Northern White calf would be successfully born. Now halfway through that timeline, she says she believes they are right on track.