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San Diego researcher cheers rhino population increase

San Diego researchers say a boost in the number of southern white rhinos living in the wild is a positive sign that conservation is working.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources report says the population of the threatened rhinos increased for the first time in a decade last year.

The study found the population on the southern part of the African continent climbed by 5.6% pushing numbers in the wild to 16,803.


White rhinos only exist in the southern part of the continent, and they are on the IUCN's Red List of Threatened Species. The overall population number classifies them as near threatened.

Conservation efforts and biological management get the credit for the rising numbers.

“These numbers give us hope,” said Barbara Durrant, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance’s director of reproductive sciences. “And make us realize that these efforts are being successful. And that generates more interest in these efforts and more support for these efforts. So, it’s a nice circle, an increasing circle of awareness and support.”

The report also found the population of the black rhino also increased. There were 6,487 animals which is up 4.2% over the previous year.

Durrant said the encouraging news does not mean it is time to relax.


“We cannot lose sight of the goal. We can’t let our guard down now,” Durrant said. “These advances are wonderfully encouraging but they’re not the end of the story.”

Poaching linked to international crime syndicates interested in the animal's horn continues to be a problem.

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is taking part in an international effort to revive the closely related northern white rhino species.

There are only two of the rare animals still alive and the females are too old to breed.

Durrant is spearheading the local effort to develop the techniques and processes to create northern white embryos from frozen tissue. The Alliance has cells from more than a dozen northern whites in its frozen zoo collection.

“There are now three or four groups in the world that are working on this project,” Durrant said. “Some embryos have been produced. No embryo transfers have been successful. Very few have been attempted. Embryo transfer is a very complex procedure in itself.”

There are six southern white rhinos in San Diego that are being prepared to carry northern white embryos. Two of them have been successfully artificially inseminated.

There is a good chance that the two living northern white rhinos will die before the process is successful, meaning the species would go extinct.

If the researchers can make it work, they could be bringing an extinct species back to life.