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 user 2007-03-22 at 9:58:00 am Views: 71
  • #17375

    Pulling species from the brink
    are only thirteen northern white rhinos left in the world. The species
    is hovering on the brink of extinction. But three men are pushing
    forward the frontiers of science to try to save them.Thomas Hildebrandt
    and his team, from the Berlin Institute of Zoo and Wildlife Research,
    are world leaders in using artificial reproduction to breed rare
    elephants, rhinos and even komodo dragons.Their work has never been
    more urgent. Throughout the history of Earth, 99% of all species which
    ever existed have disappeared. It is called the natural rate of
    extinction.But now scientists think human activity is causing species
    to disappear at up to 10,000 times this rate. Many claim the last time
    this happened was 65 million years ago, when the dinosaurs died out.

    The great conservationist Richard Leakey has called it “the Sixth Mass Extinction”.
    one northern white rhino baby has been born in the last six years. Now,
    the Berlin team is working with six captive animals, at the Dvur
    Kralove Safari Park, 110km (70 miles) north-east of Prague, in the
    Czech Republic.

    IVF technique
    summer, they inseminated Fatu, one of only two fertile females in
    captivity.She had not been ovulating and needed hormone injections to
    get her cycle started. Months later, the results came in and
    unfortunately she did not get pregnant.”Despite the setback, we have to
    continue and we are very determined,” says Dr Hildebrandt. “We know
    that the work that we do is very important.”Dr Hildebrandt is now
    convinced that artificial insemination alone will not save the species,
    so he is developing a ground-breaking IVF technique.Working with an
    international team from the Netherlands, Australia and China, he has
    already successful collected an oocyte, or egg, from a female of the
    more numerous southern white rhino species, at Western Plains Zoo, in
    New South Wales.The egg was fertilised in vitro, in a test tube, to
    produce an IVF rhino embryo.”Reproduction technology is increasingly
    important for saving species,” says Dr Hildebrandt, who knows that time
    is running out.

    Egg harvest
    this year, the team will start to harvest eggs from the northern white
    rhino in the Czech Republic, and if all goes well, create baby northern
    whites. With so few northern white rhinos remaining, the researchers
    hope to use southern white rhinos as surrogate mothers.Dr Hildebrandt
    and his colleague Frank Goeritz were brought up in the former East
    Germany. They both suffered under the former communist regime and were
    initially not allowed to attend university, because of their
    middle-class background.Instead, they had to work as porters in an
    agricultural vet college. However, Dr Hildebrandt persuaded the head of
    the institute to allow him to study for a degree. That is when he
    started work on artificially inseminating cattle.Within a few years,
    the zoologist was working with wild animals. Such was his passion for
    the subject that when the Berlin wall came down in 1989, he was too
    busy inseminating rare animals at the East Berlin Zoo to join the
    millions of his compatriots crossing to the West.Since then, the team
    has travelled ceaselessly across the world. Zoos and conservation
    projects from Australia to California have requested their services to
    boost breeding programmes.

    Unexpected obstacles
    the German scientists often confront unexpected obstacles on their
    travels.Last October Dr Hildebrandt collected semen from a male
    elephant at Pittsburgh Zoo, to use for inseminating a female elephant
    3,000km away in Salt Lake City.The semen had to be placed in carry-on
    baggage, to avoid it being exposed to extreme temperatures or cosmic
    rays.At the time, liquids could not be transported on American planes,
    following the attempted terrorist attacks on transatlantic planes in
    August 2006.Initially, airport security refused to give the go ahead
    and the project appeared doomed. Only after the intervention of the
    head of Pittsburgh Zoo did airport security officials relent, and allow
    Dr Hildebrandt and his elephant semen on board the plane.But even then,
    Dr Hildebrandt, and the elephant semen, had to be escorted by a
    bodyguard through the airport. Happily, the semen arrived within the
    eight-hour deadline, just in time to inseminate Christy, the female
    elephant at Salt Lake City Zoo.So far, Dr Hildebrandt and fellow
    zoologists, Frank Goeritz and Robert Hermes, have successfully created
    19 successful elephant calves. They are helping to create a captive
    breeding programme so that zoos will not be dependent on animals
    captured from the wild.But their biggest challenge is the northern
    white rhino where the stakes are far higher. It is the second largest
    land mammal and has lived on Earth for 50 million years, but is now
    dependent on Dr Hildebrandt’s team for its survival.