Meet Najin and Fatu, the world’s last two northern white rhinos. This mother-and-daughter pair live together in Kenya’s renowned Ol Pejeta Conservancy, where they are staunchly guarded. The last remaining male northern white rhino, Sudan, died at the conservancy of age-related issued in 2018.
It might sound like a hopeless situation, but scientists recently accomplished a fertility breakthrough that could save this special duo’s species from extinction.
How To Save a Species
Wait: How can there be any hope for a species when the only remaining individuals are two females?
Well, last month, scientists successfully completed the world’s first IVF rhino pregnancy. They transferred a lab-created rhino embryo into a surrogate southern white rhino mother. Southern whites are a closely related sub-species of northern whites.
“To achieve the first successful embryo transfer in a rhino is a huge step,” says Susanne Holtze, a scientist at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, part of the Biorescue project.
Now, this international consortium trying to save the species plans to repeat the process with northern white embryos. The newly discovered ability to create northern white rhino embryos would rescue a species that once roamed across central Africa. But illegal poaching for their horns ultimately wiped out the northern white rhino’s entire wild population.
This radical fertility experiment faced its own challenges and setbacks, not least of which was figuring out how to collect eggs from animals that weigh two tons. Scientists made 13 attempts before successfully implanting a viable embryo in a southern white female in Kenya. She became pregnant, but the surrogate mother was infected with and died from Clostridia, an often fatal bacteria found in soil, during her third month. A post-mortem report found that the male fetus had grown to 6.5 centimeters and had a 95% chance of being born alive.
Despite the loss, this proved that the IVF technique worked in rhinos. Now, scientists will move forward using some of the 30 precious northern white rhino embryos in existence—previously harvested from Fatu—to achieve the same results in the northern white rhinos.
Neither Najin nor Fatu is the right age or in good enough health to carry a pregnancy, so the team plans to implant the northern white embryo in a southern white rhino. According to Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, director of Liebniz IZW and project head for the Biorescue Consortium, “… the situation for the northern white rhino is quite privileged for the embryo transfer because we have a closely related recipient—so their internal map is nearly the same.”
The work will move forward in the coming months, with hopes that the calf will be born while Najin and Fatu are still alive. The goal is to preserve the social communication and social heritage of the species, which is best achieved by introducing the first calf to the surviving northern whites so the little ones can learn the language of the species and how to behave from them.
See the World’s Last Remaining Northern White Rhinos (for Now!) With Nat Hab
Now, get ready to actually meet Najin and Fatu. Our East Africa trips offer you the thrilling opportunity to meet this pair in person on our Pride of East Africa: Kenya & Tanzania adventure and our Ultimate East Africa Safari, which includes Kenya, Tanzania and trekking to see wild mountain gorillas in Uganda. We visit the Ol Pejeta Conservancy, located on the Laikipia Plateau in the shadow of Mount Kenya, as a highlight of both trips.
This trailblazer conservancy was created from land set aside by a working cattle ranch in 1988. Today, it is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa—and home to Najin and Fatu.
Nat Hab’s Senior Adventure Director for East Africa, Emily Cottingham, shares her enthusiasm for this opportunity: “I love that these trips give our guests the opportunity to spend a few days visiting Ol Pejeta. Not only do our travelers get to spend time with the last two northern white rhinos in existence, but they are also able to become a part of a conservation story that is so important.”
“We find that immersing yourself in an experience makes it so much more powerful, and we hope that this intimate encounter continues to create a positive outcome for these rhinos,” Cottingham continues.
After greeting the stars of this inspiring story, our trips explore this diverse wildlife haven, home to the endangered Grevy’s zebra, the legendary Big Five and many of Kenya’s endemic northern species. Travelers spend exhilarating days on safari drives and guided walks set against a backdrop of snow-capped Mount Kenya before returning to the comfort of Nat Hab’s Rhino Camp, reminiscent of East Africa’s classic safari era.
Your presence at Ol Pejeta and your time spent with Najin and Fatu support the very work that may save the northern white rhino population. The tourism industry contributes to the region’s economic growth and sustainable development, creates job opportunities and provides tangible benefits to local communities. Furthermore, protecting rhinos protects other species that also live in this conservation area.
We hope you will join us to meet Najin and Fatu—and hopefully one day even more northern white rhinos!—on a bucket-list East Africa adventure. Learn more about our Pride of East Africa: Kenya & Tanzania adventure and our Ultimate East Africa Safari.