Re-creating the Northern White Rhino sounds a bit like science fiction, but we have already cloned a sheep successfully and, if reports are to be believed, we think we can recreate a Woolly Mammoth. These “science fiction” reports immediately conjure up images of “Jurassic Park” and the re-creation of Tyrannosaurus Rex. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the science is either already here, or very close to being here. The question now becomes, not can we, but should we?

     There is also an ethical difference between re-creating a creature that we humans pushed to extinction through our stupidity, greed or simply because we wanted their habitat for more humans, and re-creating creatures that died out through normal evolutionary processes. In other words, do we assist with natural evolution or try to subvert the process. If we address that question seriously, I suppose we then have to define evolution a little more specifically. It is an interesting and challenging concept, and dilemma.

     The history of the human race says, in general, if it can be done, someone will certainly do it, regardless of sense, ethics and even self-preservation. We had better start thinking about this seriously. Do you really want a herd of Woolly Mammoths, or a Tyrannosaurus Rex cavorting through your back yard? The one thing “Jurassic Park” taught us is that we can’t always control what we create. I suppose one could say the same thing about nuclear weapons and carbon dioxide pollution.

     However, almost no-one is going to try and stop the biologists from re-creating the Northern White Rhino, which humans basically exterminated, or nearly so. As one of the team working to re-build the population said, “The rhino hasn’t failed in evolution. It’s at the brink of extinction because humans have poached and killed it.”

     The scientists working on the project estimate it will take 20 years to produce a healthy population of these rhinos and introduce them back into Africa. They estimate that the first new Northern White Rhino baby will be walking within two years. They take heart from the case of the Southern White Rhinos. There were fewer than 100 remaining in the late 1800’s but a tenacious conservation effort followed, and continues today. There are now more than 20,000 Southern White Rhinos roaming the earth, mostly in South Africa. It can be done although, as a cynic pointed out, we killed them off before, what’s to stop us doing it again? It requires a continuous commitment and a massive education program.

     And, then, there’s the cost. It’s estimated that each Northern White Rhino calf, re-generated through the proposed program, will cost about US$1 million. Can, and should, we afford that?

     The program is complicated because the reproductive cycle in rhinos is difficult to duplicate. It involves ultrasonic technology, deciphering the inner working of rhinos’ reproductive systems, combining the sperm and the egg from frozen banks to create a viable embryo, letting the embryo mature in vitro for ten days, stimulating ovulation in the host (probably a Southern White Rhino female) and then implanting the embryo. That ultimate step is fraught with danger, because it would be very easy to severely damage the surrogate’s cervical tissue, not to mention the issues surrounding controlling the reactions of a 6,000lb large and powerful animal. The team working on this process is contemplating using robots because doing this by hand is proving challenging.

     The expected results of regenerating herds of Northern White Rhinos have to be worth it. I’m not so sure whether producing herds of Woolly Mammoths and marauding Tyrannosaurus Rex also fall into the “wished for” category.

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