The White Rhino Rescue Program vs. the Pandemic

The COVID virus has hurt both human and nonhuman animals in many, many ways. The COVID-19 pandemic has affected economic, cultural, social and political processes. Research and conservation efforts are not exempt from these negative effects…

The BioRescue research project, a program aiming at saving the northern white rhinoceros from extinction, exemplifies the challenges to overcome when conducting research and conservation in an international consortium in times of a global pandemic. COVID-19 has hampered communication and travels, prevented or delayed crucial procedures, caused losses in revenues and by that may have lowered the chances of a survival of the northern white rhino. In response, the consortium adjusted strategies, gained valuable knowledge during these challenging times and has continued with its mission…

Trying to save the white rhino during the virus lock-down:

There are only two northern white rhino individuals left in the world, both females. To prevent the extinction of the northern white rhino, an international consortium of scientists and conservationists seeks to advance assisted reproduction technologies and stem-cell associated techniques to create northern white rhino embryos in vitro. In the near future, the embryos will be transferred to southern white rhino surrogate mothers to create northern white rhino offspring. This boundary-pushing program is conducted by an international team working within a global framework and includes scientists and conservationists from institutions in Germany, Kenya, Japan, Czech Republic, USA and Italy. From March 2020 onward, the work of the consortium has been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic in several ways at the local, national and international level.

At the international level, the most striking obstacle were international travel restrictions. “The consortium partners had previously agreed upon collecting oocytes from the last two northern white rhinos every three to four months. This is considered a safe interval to maintain the health of the females while maximising the number of harvested oocytes, equivalent to potential future embryos and offspring” says BioRescue project head Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz-Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW). Following such an interval, oocyte collection was planned for March 2020 at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. “Owing to international travel restrictions, the procedure had to be cancelled and could only be conducted after the re-opening of Kenya’s borders in August 2020,” adds Leibniz-IZW BioRescue scientist Susanne Holtze, who shares first authorship of the publication with Hildebrandt. “This does not only mean that one crucial opportunity was missed and possibly several valuable embryos could not be generated, it also affected the subsequent procedure in August 2020,” Holtze explains. It is likely that the prolonged interval since the last oocyte collection in December 2019 compromised oocyte quality and was the reason that out of 10 oocytes, no embryos could be created. The delay of possible embryo transfers in Kenya will also decrease chances for northern white rhino calves to grow up with individuals of their kind. This ultimately implies that almost a year was lost for the program — a serious delay in the race against time to prevent the extinction of the northern white rhino.

In addition to the delays in conducting the procedures at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, for which strict travel regulations and on-site hygiene rules had to be followed, the pandemic posed several further challenges to the consortium. Lock-down and temporal closures of public facilities caused notable losses in revenues for the consortium partner Safari Park Dvůr Králové in the Czech Republic. “We faced the unprecedented situation of having no revenues from entrance fees and other services. However, against all odds, we were quickly able to develop new ways of how to approach our potential visitors and supporters online and this allowed us to keep our support to the northern white rescue program on the same level as in previous years. Our highest priority is protecting species from extinction and COVID-19 confirmed how important the support by individual donors is,” says Jan Stejskal, the Safari Park’s Director of Communication and International Projects. Similarly, the not-for-profit Ol Pejeta Conservancy experienced drastic reductions in revenue from international tourism owing to a ban on international travel, national curfews and the isolation of the capital Nairobi. “Therefore, fundraising was necessary to maintain our wildlife and conservation programmes and pay for salaries,” says Ol Pejeta Managing Director, Richard Vigne. “Nevertheless, safeguarding the animals and professional veterinary care were maintained at all times in cooperation with the Kenya Wildlife Service.”

Hope is still possible

“COVID-19 has disastrous consequences all over the world, but two new embryos that we produced in December 2020 demonstrate that our BioRescue team is committed to overcome all scientific and logistic challenges the northern white rhino rescue might bring. We will be grateful for everyone who decides to support us in our mission.”    -Dr. Jan Stejska

Journal Reference:  Thomas B. Hildebrandt, Susanne Holtze, Pierfrancesco Biasetti, Silvia Colleoni, Barbara de Mori, Sebastian Diecke, Frank Göritz, Katsuhiko Hayashi, Masafumi Hayashi, Robert Hermes, Linus Kariuki, Giovanna Lazzari, Domnic Mijele, Samuel Mutisya, David Ndeereh, Stephen Ngulu, Steven Seet, Jan Zwilling, Vera Zywitza, Jan Stejskal, Cesare Galli. Conservation Research in Times of COVID-19 – The Rescue of the Northern White Rhino. Journal of Applied Animal Ethics Research, 2021; 1 DOI: 10.1163/25889567-BJA10009