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Clock Ticking On Northern White Rhino

San Diego Zoo researchers are caring for two pregnant southern white rhinos that are a key part in the plan to save the critically endangered northern white rhinos. The extinction clock is ticking because only two northern whites remain alive.

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Show transcript

Speaker 1: 00:00 San Diego Zoo researchers are caring for two pregnant southern white rhinos that are a key part in the plan to save the critically endangered northern white rhinos. KPBS reporter Eric Anderson finds the effort may be getting some help from a Uc San Diego robotics researcher

Speaker 2: 00:21 ready.

Speaker 3: 00:22 Marco Xeno has worked with the six rhinos since they arrived in 2015 nice job. They're 22 hour flight from South Africa was the first leg of a long journey that is far from over. It is pretty amazing that these animals used to be, you know, out essentially in the wild and to come from a place where they had almost no human interaction to here and work so closely with us every day. Yeah, it's very surprising. Xeno says the animals are friendly and approachable. Although he says they work under strict guidelines. All contact is through a protective barrier even so there's no hesitation to put an arm through the fence to encourage a behavior. Yup. Ready?

Speaker 4: 01:03 Here we go. Open air. It is good

Speaker 3: 01:08 girl. Another nice teeth. Very good. Showing teeth is valuable, but the rhinos are here for a different reason. Reproductive physiologist. Barbara Duran says she hopes to eventually implant northern white embryos in these six rhinos. The first step is to impregnate each of them by artificial insemination.

Speaker 2: 01:30 That will tell us that those females now are proven females. They're capable of conceiving. They're capable of carrying a term pregnancy and giving birth. Then we can start to use those animals after they've weaned. They're babies will start to use those animals for practicing embryo transfer.

Speaker 3: 01:48 Darren's team was successful twice. The first and semination happened a year ago here. Duran showed KPBS a live ultrasound picture of a 53 day old fetus inside Victoria.

Speaker 4: 02:01 And then her, this is her body and she'll turn a little bit. You can see her feet.

Speaker 3: 02:08 The fetus was about the size of a Aa battery back then.

Speaker 2: 02:12 We watched it grow. We were doing measurements. We could see as the the limb buds were forming. We saw the heart for me. Um, and then it now it's so big that it is not up close where we can see it, it has fallen down into her abdomen. So it's way down in here. Now,

Speaker 3: 02:28 Duran says the baby is so big now that it's too hard to get a full picture on an ultrasound machine. The rent guesses. The Rhino is the size of a laundry basket. Now, although it's admittedly hard to gel

Speaker 2: 02:41 and you can't tell from the outside that she's pregnant unless you're lucky enough to see the baby kick, which we often can see from the outside.

Speaker 3: 02:48 The next crucial point comes in a month or two. Duran says Victoria will probably become restless and move away from the other rhinos when she's ready to deliver.

Speaker 2: 02:58 It's normally not

Speaker 3: 02:59 terribly long. You know in humans you often hear about women being in labor for hours, 10 hours, 20 hours, 30 hours. That doesn't, that does not happen with these animals and you can understand why in the wild that would not be a good thing to have a prolonged labor in the wild because the ama would be debilitated and would be subject to predation. Yeah, Victoria and another rhino, Amani were both artificially inseminated. Money is due in about five months and Duran hopes three more rhinos will be pregnant soon. Nice Tab. The next stage involves implanting an embryo that's conceived in the lab, but there's an obstacle. The rhinos birth canal presents a problem.

Speaker 2: 03:41 It's very deep within the abdominal cavity, which makes it difficult to access as well, but it has a number of cartilaginous rings, the interlock this way, so there's no clear pathway through the cervix when you want to deposit seaman or an embryo into the uterus.

Speaker 3: 03:59 The cervix opens up a bit when the Rhino was in heat allowing to rent to use a long straight metal catheter for artificial insemination, but that won't work for embryo implantation.

Speaker 2: 04:10 The embryo is going to be growing in vitro or in the lab for about 10 to 12 days. So the cervix of this animal, these recipients is going to be closed. So the only way we're going to be able to get through that cervix is with something that's not rigid and something that we can steer from outside the animal

Speaker 3: 04:29 that something is being developed about 30 miles away in a robotics lab on the UC San Diego campus. Professor Michael Yip is working on a tool that will help navigate the rhino cervix and deliver an embryo to the animals. Uterine hard.

Speaker 5: 04:44 The idea is that you have a long flexible device, uh, with tendons that run through, um, the end all the way to the handle and we can pull on those tendons like you were marrying at a pipette. But in this case, we're actually deflecting the end of this robotic tool.

Speaker 3: 05:02 Yup. It is modeling the new tool on endoscopes that can be used to inspect a person's colon or lungs without creating an incision. The Rhino version is much smaller. Once the devices inserted, the catheter can be maneuvered until it reaches a target location.

Speaker 5: 05:19 The animals might have several different pathways for their reproductive system, much like the Rhino, where they have two different uterine horns and you're trying to make sure that you're entering the right channel versus the other.

Speaker 3: 05:31 So for this demo, we're using this kind of three d pen. So the idea is undergraduate student renal Virgie's is helping you work out different controllers. The finished product could end up being like a gaming controller and electronic pen or a small knob on a handheld device, which seems to be the most promising prototype for, he says the camera plays an important role. Yeah. So we actually use the camera as part of our system. Um, and because these things are so hard to control, using that camera gives it a little bit of feedback and it gives us a little better idea of how we're moving. The narrow tube on. This device is hollow and the tiny camera is threaded through it. Yep. Says that allows the team to see the rhinos narrow and twisting cervix as it moves along.

Speaker 2: 06:17 Once you get the device articulated into the right location, past the cervix, into the uterine horns of the rhino, you can actually use that hollow channel to flush through, um, uh, the, the genetic material.

Speaker 3: 06:32 If successful, the procedure will be groundbreaking because it's never been done on a rhino. Duran says the first attempts will be with southern White Rhino Embryo is conceived in the lab.

Speaker 2: 06:43 Once we've gotten the efficiency, worked out the kinks, so to speak with the instrumentation, and we feel confident in our technique. That's when we'll take one of those very precious northern white rhino embryos and put it into one of these southern white rhinos.

Speaker 3: 06:58 Duran says the zoo has cell lines from 12 different northern white rhinos stored in a repository known as the [inaudible]

Speaker 6: 07:04 frozen zoo. Geneticists are working on the protocols that turn the frozen tissue into reproductive cells. If both teams are successful, the project could help bring the northern white rhino back from the edge of extinction.

Speaker 1: 07:20 Jamie is KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson. Hi Eric. Hi Maureen. There are a lot of endangered species in the world. A UN report recently said a million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction. So what was the San Diego Zoo working so hard to preserve this particular rhino?

Speaker 6: 07:40 Well, I think it has a lot to do with the fact that when there were only five of these northern white rhinos on the planet, two of them were living here in San Diego. They had a pair that live there and kind of pulled on the emotional heartstrings and, and helped a little bit, uh, kind of, uh, motivate the team there I think at San Diego Zoo global, um, to, to move forward with this effort. But also, uh, because the community had a connection. Uh, it may have also helped with some fundraising efforts to, because this is a very expensive effort.

Speaker 1: 08:12 Could the same methods and technology be used to preserve other species?

Speaker 6: 08:16 I think the interesting thing about what they're doing here, they're doing stuff that's very specific to the Rhino, so I'm not sure how that will translate in to another species, some of the reproductive work that they're doing. Uh, but some of the genetic work that they are doing can definitely be applied in other species. If there's a repository of a species that is hovering on the brink of extinction or it may already be extinct, but there's this repository of cellular material and they work out the protocols to not only take things like skin cells, turn them into pluripotent stem cells, and then create a reproductive cells and create embryos that you can implant into a another closely related species. Yeah. Those things could all be translated into, into different species and it may end up being that, uh, there are species that are kept from going extinct because of this and possibly there are other species that might be brought back from extinction.

Speaker 1: 09:17 No. If there were ever enough new northern white rhinos to introduce back into the wild, where would they go?

Speaker 6: 09:25 Ah, very good question. I think that there is habitat available to them. Uh, one of the reasons why they were, uh, so troubled is because there was war, a political, you know, geopolitical unrest in the area that they considered habitat. Uh, but there are other places where they could survive. There are large game reserves, um, through where they have southern whites in the northern part of Africa, uh, where they could release these rhinos into the wild if it ever got to that point. Um, they will force, have to have a sustainable population before they did something like that. I'm sure there would be safeguards there to make sure that they're protected because they will be extremely valuable. But the advantage of having such a big animal that's being watched over and cared for is they require a lot of habitats of the umbrella is pretty big. Right? So if you're protecting the, the northern white rhino in the wild, you're also protecting a large swath of habitat that in turn protects other species as well.

Speaker 1: 10:25 I've been speaking with KPBS environment reporter Eric Anderson. Eric, thank you. My pleasure.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.