(CNN) — Scientists have successfully created two embryos from the northern white rhino — a crucial turning point in the race to save the majestic animal from extinction.
The last two northern white rhinos left worldwide — Fatu and Najin — are both female and living at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The last male, Sudan, died last year, raising fears the subspecies is on the verge of extinction, especially because the two females cannot carry a pregnancy.
In a new glimmer of hope, scientists announced Wednesday that they successfully fertilized in-vitro embryos collected from the two remaining female northern white rhinos.
The embryos were created with eggs extracted from Fatu and Najin by international scientists last month and frozen sperm from dead males. Two embryos were viable, and are now stored in liquid nitrogen, waiting to be transferred into a surrogate mother in the near future, Ol Pejeta Conservancy said in a statement.
The embryos are just one part of a long journey to stop the northern white rhino’s rapid descent into extinction.
Najin and Fatu are not able to carry a pregnancy themselves, so the embryos will likely be transferred to a female southern white rhino who would act as a surrogate.
“Five years ago it seemed like the production of a northern white rhino embryo was (an) almost unachievable goal — and today we have them,” said Jan Stejskal of Dvůr Králové Zoo, where Najin and Fatu were born.
The process is years in the making
The Ol Pejeta Conservancy acquired the northern white rhinos — two males and two females — in 2009 from a zoo in the Czech Republic. Both male northern white rhinos died, leaving the fate of the subspecies on the female rhinos.
Sudan died of natural causes in March last year and another male died in 2014. Sperm from both males was cryogenically frozen with the hope that technology would advance enough to use it in reproduction.
Years later, it happened. The harvested eggs were airlifted from Kenya to Italy, where scientists at the Avantea laboratory fertilized the eggs in vitro with the sperm from the deceased males.
A race against time
Rhinos are targeted by poachers, fueled by the belief in Asia that their horns cure various ailments. Experts say the rhino horn is becoming more lucrative than drugs.
With only two left worldwide, there’s a race against time to try to sustain the northern white rhino.
The western black rhino was declared extinct years ago as a result of poaching. All five remaining rhino species worldwide are considered threatened, according to the conservation group Save the Rhino.