Why the White Rhinoceros is Anything but a White Elephant

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White Rhino Eye
by Sara Yeomans CC 2.0

If you travel to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya you will have the opportunity to view the last three Northern White Rhinoceroses on the planet. Unable to reproduce, these three aging rhinos are the last relic of the once populous species that used to thrive in Northern African climate (Ryder at al., Zoo Biology). That is, until scientists are able to perfect cellular technologies that will give them the ability to repopulate the Northern White Rhinoceros as well as other endangered species.

More species are becoming endangered or extinct in our lifetime than ever as we enter the sixth great extinction period, otherwise known as the Anthropocene. Conservation biologists are tirelessly working to preserve the habitats of these creatures, but what if there was a way to undo part of the damage that was already done? If scientists are successfully able to repopulate the White Rhinoceros, we are setting ourselves up to also bring back some of the many other species that we have lost.

Even with a limited conservation budget, working to revive the White Rhino is still worth it. While it may seem more fun to bring back the woolly mammoth, or create a real world Jurassic Park (without the escaped, out of control dinosaurs part), these rhinos are still a living breathing species that need our help to make it. They are also a species that didn’t go extinct by natural causes, or even secondhand human causes (like introducing an invasive species or global warming), but because they were poached into extinction. In this case, isn’t it our responsibility to try to undo our mistakes before the ecosystem moves on without the rhino and it’s too late? Focusing research on saving the white rhino would also serve as a way to further advance our genetic technologies. With the large impact humanity has had on the planet, conservation biology has turned into a race against time. The fact that we are struggling to distribute funding shouldn’t be the end for projects such as this one, but as a start for movements to get more money into conservation.

According to the journal “Rewinding the Process of Mammalian Extinction”, the end goal of using reproductive technologies to recreate the Northern White Rhino population by using surrogate mothers is still several years away. There are many complications due to the old age of the remaining three Northern White Rhinos. Researchers are currently looking for a surrogate species to carry the rhino species back to a healthy population size. The first mammal embryo was developed through transferring the cells from adult nuclei into recipient cells as long as twenty years ago (Wilmut et al., 1997). Since then, we have been able to successfully reproduce the process for over twenty different species, indicating that discovering a process that works for the White Rhino would definitely be within the realm of possibilities.

To be sure, genetically recreating organisms from stem cells could have negative consequences as well. If an organism is reintroduced to its native environment from the brink of extinction, the ecosystem could have adapted without it, especially with all of the changes due to global warming. There is also the fact that we have to pick and choose where our conservation budget goes, and spending money on this could lead to less funding for other projects.

But if we are going to bring back a species from the brink of extinction, why not this one? The Northern White Rhinoceros was only completely moved into captivity a few years ago, so it still has a place in its old ecosystem. This would make it easier to reintroduce than a species that has been extinct for decades, because “introductions outside the indigenous range, or the release of long-extinct species, carry a greater level of uncertainty, because these constitute creation of novel ecosystems” (Seddon et al.,University of Otago, Trends in Ecology and Evolution). They have a close relative in the Southern White Rhino that we can potentially use as a surrogate, even though these two species are found in separate parts of Africa. This isn’t a species where we can try to rebuild the population in captivity, or hope if we stop poaching they will return back to what they once were. Their only hope is in-vitro fertilization. We have the chance to stop another species from falling through our grasp into extinction. The question shouldn’t be why bother investing in the technology to give this species a second chance, but why do we require so much convincing to believe that an entire species is worth the effort it takes to save it?

Saragusty, Joseph, Sebastian Diecke, Micha Drukker, Barbara Durrant, Inbar Friedrich Ben-Nun, Cesare Galli, Frank Göritz, Katsuhiko Hayashi, Robert Hermes, Susanne Holtze, Stacey Johnson, Giovanna Lazzari, Pasqualino Loi, Jeanne F. Loring, Keisuke Okita, Marilyn B. Renfree, Steven Seet, Thomas Voracek, Jan Stejskal, Oliver A. Ryder, and Thomas B. Hildebrandt. “Rewinding the Process of Mammalian Extinction.” Zoo Biology 35.4 (2016): 280-92. Wiley Online Library. Web. 3 Sept. 2016. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/zoo.21284/full>.

Seddon, P. J., Moehrenschlager, A., & Ewen, J. (2014). Reintroducing resurrected species: Selecting DeExtinction candidates. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 29(3), 140-147. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2014.01.007

Wilmut I, Schnieke AE, McWhir J, Kind AJ, Campbell KH. 1997. Viable offspring derived from fetal and adult mammalian cells. Nature 385(6619):810–813.

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This entry was posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2016. Bookmark the permalink.

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