I first heard about Sudan on CBS Sunday Morning, followed by an online article from Wired a day or two later. The story struck a chord for a couple of reasons. First, I’m a long time animal lover. It’s what had me decide at the age of seven to pursue my first career as a small animal veterinarian. Second, I’ve been pondering for some time what I might write about on this blog that my readers would find interesting. One recurring theme of many of my stories has been “genetic engineering gone bad.” Just check out FreeForm and the other books of the Saga of the Dandelion Expansion. Such a theme makes for some pretty interesting storylines, right? But does that make all genetic engineering efforts bad?
Sudan’s story suggests otherwise. Sudan was the last male northern white rhinoceros, the world’s rarest large mammal. He was put down on March 19th at the ripe old age of forty-five. So, that’s the end of another species, right? Not necessarily, not if Thomas Hildebrandt and his small team of researchers have their way. Prof Hildebrandt is head of reproduction management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in the eastern suburbs of Berlin. You see, for the past fifteen years, he and his colleagues have been collecting semen samples that are being kept frozen in liquid nitrogen at -196C. The plan is to use IVF (in vitro fertilization) to “make” new rhino babies with the help of the last two remaining members of Sudan’s species, Fatu and Najin, his 28-year-old daughter and 18-year-old granddaughter.
But this miracle of science in the making doesn’t stop there. As the Wired article points out:
Even if Hildebrandt and his team manage to produce a lot of offspring from the two females using IVF with the frozen semen they have, they will be unable to achieve the necessary biological variety to create a long-term sustainable population.
That’s where genetic engineering steps in, but I’ll let you read the Wired article for those details. I want to focus on two other points instead. First, why does it matter? After all, this is just one more species going extinct. Isn’t that just part of the process of evolution? Maybe, maybe not. Let’s remember one important point; why this species is on the brink of extinction to begin with. We, humans, are to blame, pure and simple. When the species was first discovered in 1908 by British geologist Richard Lydekker in 1908, there were hundreds of thousands of the animals. Since then they’ve been relentlessly hunted by poachers for their horns.
According to SavetheRhino.com,
Rhino poaching has escalated in recent years and is being driven by the demand for rhino horn in asian countries, particularly Vietnam. It is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine but more and more commonly now it is used as a status symbol to display someone’s success and wealth. (my emphasis)
Second point. The efforts of Prof. Hildebrandt and others is not some well-funded government project (or plot to take over the world). In fact, according to Hildebrandt, “Every-thing would have been a little faster had we had solid financing. “We’re not running out of money, the truth is we never had any money for this.”
And this is where you and I can help make a difference. There’s a GoFundMe campaign underway started by olpejetaconservancy.org (“Ol Pejeta is the largest black rhino sanctuary in East Africa.” It was also Sudan’s home from 2009 until his death last week.):
Today we are asking you to donate in Sudan’s honour. With your help he can leave a legacy. A donation to support the IVF research will help to ensure that one day in the future, northern white rhinos will once again roam freely in their natural habitat.
What say we do our part to make sure Sudan’s species doesn’t go the way of the Dodo bird. Won’t you join me in investing a little green energy into making sure our children and grandchildren will continue to live in a world where such incredible beasts can cohabitate?
Other articles you may find of interest:
On the potentially darker side of G.E.: Mouse egg cells made entirely in the lab give rise to healthy offspring