San Diego Zoo Safari Park takes major step in saving rhino species

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) - Scientists at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park are taking the next major step in their high-tech plan to bring the Northern White Rhino back from the brink of extinction.

The Safari Park was home to Nola, one of the last of the species. Since her death in 2015, only three of the rhinos remain. The male and two females are not capable of breeding.

The plan consists of using samples already collected of Northern White semen and eggs to do fertilization in the lab. The fertilized eggs would then be transferred to Southern White Rhinos through in vitro fertilization, turning the close genetic cousins of the Northern White into surrogate mothers.

Since July, scientist Dr. Barbara Durrant has been doing ultrasounds on the six Southern Whites selected for the surrogate program.

"We're getting data that no one's ever been able to get on any rhino species," she told 10News reporter Jeff Lasky, who was invited to watch one of the procedures.

Durrant says before they begin using the small amount of Northern White reproductive materials available, they must understand as much as possible about the Southern White's reproductive cycles.

"We'll have a year's worth of data on each one of these animals so that we know which one will be the appropriate recipient," she explains. The data will also indicate the best time in each rhino's cycle for the artificial insemination to be successful.

The next step will be to perfect the artificial insemination technology and test it on the Southern White species. One rhino was artificially inseminated in July. Dr. Durrant is still waiting to see if that rhino has become pregnant.

She tells 10News she's still optimistic about the timetable for the project she first gave 10News in 2015.  

If it holds up, she hopes the first new Northern White Rhino would be born in the year 2025.

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