The bumbling, sleepy rhino calf at San Diego Zoo is sure to delight animal lovers around the world. But for conservation scientists, his birth has additional meaning – it marks a significant step toward saving wild rhino populations from the edge of extinction.
The newborn southern white rhino is the first in North America, and the third in the world, born as the result of artificial insemination.
His mother Victoria, who carried the calf for 493 days, stayed calm during her 30-minute labor on Sunday, the zoo announced.
“Victoria is doing a great job as a mother,” said Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive sciences at San Diego Zoo Global, the not-for-profit organization that runs the zoo. “And the calf is doing great. As soon as Victoria took the placenta off him, he was moving. He stood very quickly, and of course, he was very wobbly.”
At two days old, he is steadying himself. And though he stays close to his mother, appears to be growing curious about his surroundings, she reported. The zoo has yet to announce a name for the calf.
“He is very cute, but he has much greater significance,” said Durrant. The birth of the new southern rhino calf is part of a plan to save the northern white rhino – a related subspecies whose population has dwindled to two.
Whereas populations of southern white rhinos have recovered and stabilized, thanks to a century of protection and management, northern white rhinos have been decimated by hunting during the colonial era and poaching in recent years. The last male northern white rhino died in March, and only two females of the species remain.
Durrant and her colleagues at the San Diego Zoo hope that eventually the six female southern white rhinos under their care, including Victoria, will serve as surrogates for northern white rhino embryos, helping revive the population.
This year, scientists at Polish zoo Chorzow successfully transferred a hybrid rhino embryo – created in a test tube with frozen northern rhino sperm and a southern rhino egg – back into a southern rhino female. But it is unclear whether the pregnancy will take.
Scientists have preserved sperm samples from several male northern rhinos, though they have yet to acquire permission from the Kenyan government to harvest eggs from the two surviving females.
Members of Durrant’s team in San Diego are working to circumvent the need to harvest eggs by converting frozen cells preserved from northern white rhinos into stem cells that could develop into sperm and eggs.
“Our ultimate goal is to have a self-sustaining herd of pure northern white rhinos,” Durrant said.
Right now, the team is working on improving artificial insemination procedures and testing whether each of their southern rhino females is healthy and capable of childbirth and child-rearing.
Another rhino at the zoo’s Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center, called Amani, who was also impregnated through artificial insemination, is due in September or October.