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The Last of the Northern White Rhinos — Can We Save Them If Less Than a Handful Remain?

[DIGEST: NPR, Washington Post, LiveScience]

The San Diego Zoo Safari tweeted a sad and solemn message using #Nola4ever to gather condolences from the Twitterverse upon the loss of one of only four northern white rhinos left on the planet. 

Nola the rhino died on Sunday, November 22nd, following complications from a bacterial infection, and complications from age. It is a loss that not only inspires grief for the animal herself, but fears for the entire species. It seems the “rescue” of this species, however, might come about only after its total extinction.

The last remaining northern white rhinos–including two females and one male–are at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, watched around the clock by armed guards. Not only is there a limited gene pool from which to draw, but none of the living rhinos can reproduce. The lone male is so old he can no longer mount a female, and his gametes are of dubious viability. One remaining female is also nearly as old as the male and cannot sustain a 16 month pregnancy. The other remaining female is infertile.

But scientists are grappling with a way to bring the northern white rhino back from the brink, using every tool available, and even betting on future technologies to resurrect the species posthumously. One such effort, in-vitro fertilization (IVF), would combine harvested gametes and then implant them in a womb. It works well in human reproduction, but it isn’t yet possible with rhinos. The uterus of each species has specific cultures, and those cultures need to be identified and replicated in order for embryos to survive the IVF process. Scientists are looking towards horses for ideas, as they are a close

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    Haley Pollock is a parent, blogger and freelance writer. A third generation Northern Californian, an... keep reading