March 2020 marked two years since the death of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino - and arguably the most famous rhino in the world. Sudan’s death left Najin and Fatu - his daughter and granddaughter - carrying the burden of their entire species’ survival.
In August 2019, a ground-breaking ovum pick up procedure was performed on both females and resulted in two pure northern white rhino embryos. Another procedure in December 2019, brought the total embryos to three and the future was starting to look hopeful for the northern white rhinos. The plan was that these embryos be inserted into the southern white rhino female, who would act as a surrogate.
The successful embryo development created significant momentum, and the northern white rhino recovery activities planned for 2020 started with vigour. Then, of course, the world was brought to its knees by the COVID-19 pandemic. This meant that our global BioRescue team of experts could not travel, and any planned ovum pick-up procedures at Ol Pejeta Conservancy were put on hold.
The pandemic not only affected the procedures, but also forced us to shut our gates to the many visitors who would usually visit the rhinos and their caretakers every day. "By the second week after the national lockdown in Kenya, I was already missing the school groups and how excited the children’s faces would get as the rhinos walked towards them,” says our head caregiver of Najin and Fatu, Zacharia Mutai. “It would make my day to know that I have maybe made a forever memory for these young children and it is always my hope that that memory would steer them towards becoming wildlife champions.”
Fast forward to August 2020, when we finally got a break and travel restrictions were relaxed - good news for our rescue team from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and the Dvůr Králové Zoo. Carefully, following all the health and safety protocols, they came to Ol Pejeta and performed another procedure on Najin and Fatu, extracting ten oocytes. Sadly, none of the oocytes developed into viable embryos back in the Italian reproduction laboratory, Avantea. The most plausible scientific explanation for this unexpected outcome is that the oocytes harvested derived from ovarian follicles which were more than eight months old due to the COVID-19 travel restrictions.
Meanwhile, on the fence line, a young lioness was spotted inside Najin and Fatu’s enclosure by a rhino caregiver who was doing an early morning patrol! He quickly called out the ecological monitoring team who, together with the rangers, safely encouraged the lioness out of the enclosure - watch the video here. We don't think she meant any harm but to prevent predators from getting through the fence in the future, we have added reinforcement by netting the bottom half of the fence.
On the 24th of November this year, in close collaboration with the Kenya Wildlife Service, we welcomed a southern white rhino bull named Owuan to Ol Pejeta, who was moved from the nearby Lewa Wildlife Conservancy. Owuan’s job is to signal to the northern white rhino recovery team when the nearby southern white rhino females are on heat - and therefore when the embryo transfer procedure of the northern white rhino embryo should take place.
We were honoured when on the 20th of December, the Google team celebrated the northern white rhinos with a tribute to Sudan on their Google search “doodle of the day” and with a feature on their Google Arts & Culture site. Sudan continues to capture hearts and minds all over the world, even after his passing.
The COVID-19 pandemic must be wake up call and an international turning point in sustainable management of habitats and all species. The northern white rhino rescue programme is working hard on fixing the mistakes made by humans. The aim is to build up a new viable population of northern white rhinos. This will have a positive impact on the habitats they live in. Which is a key of reducing the uncontrolled spreading of viruses.
We may have lost some time - and funds - this year because of the pandemic, but we are hopeful that 2021 can only get better. We hope that you will continue to walk this journey towards the species’ recovery with us.