Resurrecting the Northern White Rhino

Environmental author Maura O’Connor reveals the inspiration for her book ‘Resurrection Science’

When I was a graduate student studying newspaper journalism I started getting interested in conservation stories—particularly the politics and ethics of trying to prevent extinctions. After graduation, I was a freelance reporter for The New York Post and with some other creative fundraising, I eventually managed to buy a ticket to Tanzania to report on a frog that had gone extinct in the wild. But it took another five years before I had an opportunity to write a book about conservation and de-extinction, and I could wade deeper into the subject.

When I started the book, I knew I wanted to write a chapter about the northern white rhino. There were only seven of these animals left so my first questions were really about what strategies biologists have to try and save such a rare species from extinction. I found out about the frozen DNA samples from these rhinos kept at The Frozen Zoo in San Diego, and interviewed an amazing stem cell researcher in California. She had managed to create what are called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) from skin tissue of a female rhino named Fatu. With iPSCs, scientists can coax the immature cells to develop into any cells of the body, including sperm and oocytes. It was the first time such cells had been created from an endangered species. The hope is that it may be possible to make more northern white rhinos using iPSCs and in-vitro fertilization in a surrogate rhino.

As I talked to the scientists and rhino conservationists about this technology, I heard several of them refer to a wildlife park in the Democratic Republic of Congo called Garamba. It turned out that the last wild population of northern white rhinos has been lost there. I started to realize that the backstory to the northern white rhino had to be included in what I was writing. What had happened at Caramba and what lessons did it offer? Would other elephants and rhinos be depending on stem cell technology to be resurrected in the future?

The only way to really understand the northern white rhino conservation history was to talk to Kes Hillman Smith, a wildlife zoologist who had spent twenty-four years living at Garamba and had fought to protect them in the wild. So in 2014, I flew to Nairobi (with my six-month-old baby along for the ride) and met Kes and her husband Fraser. We went to visit four of the northern white rhinos, including Fatu. I got to hear the story of Garamba first-hand. It was an amazing experience as a journalist but it was very profound personally as well. The commitment of the Smiths, and in fact, many of the conservationists I’ve gotten to talk to, is humbling.

Before I finished writing the book, two of the northern white rhinos died from natural causes. So today there are only five left and only one, Sudan, is male. So far, he hasn’t shown much promise of successfully mating. As I write in the book, the northern white rhino is a species that is on both the edge of extinction and resurrection at the same time. Funny enough, although there are big technical hurdles to overcome, I think resurrecting northern white rhinos in a laboratory is much easier compared to what would have been required to save them in the wild. In the laboratory you don’t have to solve a civil war or end poverty.

New York journalist Maura O’Connor is author of Resurrection Science: Conservation, De-Extinction and the Precarious Future of Wild Things (2015). She’ll discuss the ethics of our involvement and intervention in the precarious futures of species as part of the Resurrection Science event on 9 Oct 2015.

Image: Lance and Erin ‘Northern White Rhinoceros’ via Flickr Commons