Two white rhinoceroses at the Waterberg Plateau in northern Namibia. Image courtesy of Ikiwaner.

The University of Pretoria (UP) is working with international partners to perform in vitro fertilization (IVF) to support dwindling rhinoceros populations. By developing artificial reproduction techniques, researchers can help with the conservation of threatened and endangered rhino species, as well as captivity breeding programs. One of the main areas of research being conducted in the lab is related to finding the best way to preserve and use harvested eggs and sperm from the white rhino to ensure that viable embryos can be produced using IVF techniques.

“We would like to develop robust and repeatable methods and techniques that can be used to do artificial reproduction to bolster populations of threatened and endangered species or help domesticated animals reproduce more effectively,” Professor Leith Meyer, Director of the Centre for Veterinary Wildlife Studies, said. “These artificial reproduction technologies will also be used to help advance the genetic potential and diversity of certain species that require it.”

The International Rhino Reproduction Collaborative (IRRC) is a joint initiative between UP and the San Diego Zoo Global, a non-profit organization committed to saving species around the world by uniting experts in animal care and conservation science.

“Artificial reproduction attempts in rhinos involve the harvesting of sperm samples from rhino bulls, and the successful freezing and storage of the samples in straws or vials in liquid nitrogen for future use,” explains Mario Smuts, veterinary technologist at the Department of Production Animal Studies. “Ovaries and/or eggs (oocytes) are also harvested from either rhino cows that are anesthetized or from post-mortem material collected from rhinos that either died from natural causes or were poached. We are developing protocols to optimally transport ovaries and/or eggs from remote locations to the laboratories in a timely manner so that the eggs are still alive (viable) for fertilization.”

Once eggs are successfully fertilized, they are grown in incubators until they reach the embryo stage and stored in liquid nitrogen for future use. The entire process is carefully and optimized over time to improve survival rates.

Rhino oocytes (ovaries and/or eggs).

Rhino oocytes (ovaries and/or eggs). Image courtesy of The University of Pretoria.

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