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Endangered rhino species gets a chance at survival with scientific breakthrough4 min read

“We are delighted that this partnership gets us one step closer to prevent extinction of the northern white rhinos”

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Endangered rhino species gets a chance at survival with scientific breakthrough
A white rhinoceros and a few months old rhinoceros calf go on the territory of private rhinoceros rearing of J. Hume in South Africa's Northwest Province. There are currently more than 1700 white rhinos living on the farm. Photo: Jürgen Bätz/dpa

Veterinarians have successfully harvested eggs from the last two surviving northern white rhinos, taking them one step closer to bringing the species back from the brink of extinction, scientists said in Kenya on Friday.

Science is the only hope for the northern white rhino after the death last year of the last male, named Sudan, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya where the groundbreaking procedure was carried out Thursday.

Two females, Najin, 30, and daughter Fatu, 19, are the only survivors of the subspecies of white rhino, and live under 24-hour armed guard at Ol Pejeta.

However, neither is able to carry a calf. Fatu has degenerative lesions in her uterus and Najin has weak hind legs which could cause complications if she fell pregnant.

But an international consortium of scientists and conservationists has been working on a project costing several million dollars to save the northern white rhino using pioneering artificial reproduction techniques that have taken years of research and development.

Technique developed from scratch –

Endangered rhino species gets a chance at survival with scientific breakthrough
A white rhinoceros and a few months old rhinoceros calf go on the territory of private rhinoceros rearing of J. Hume in South Africa’s Northwest Province. There are currently more than 1700 white rhinos living on the farm. Photo: Jürgen Bätz/dpa

“We were able to harvest a total of 10 oocytes — five from Najin and five from Fatu — showing that both females can still provide eggs and thus help to save these magnificent creatures,” said Professor Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo & Wildlife Research (IZW) in Germany who helped carry out the procedure.

READ: Africa’s rare giraffes face ‘silent extinction’ threats

“Both the technique and the equipment had to be developed entirely from scratch,” he said.

The eggs — which cannot be frozen — were immediately flown to a laboratory in Italy to be fertilised with cryogenically frozen sperm, of which there are samples from four deceased males.

The resulting embryos will then be frozen until they can be transferred into a surrogate mother from the southern white rhino subspecies. The first such rhino embryos using in-vitro techniques were created last year.

The team working on the project also includes Italian biotech laboratory Avantea, Czech zoo Dvur Kralove and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

“We are delighted that this partnership gets us one step closer to prevent extinction of the northern white rhinos. This is particularly touching, given the heartbreaking death of Sudan, the last male, who died of old age last year in Kenya,” said John Waweru, KWS director-general. 

Sudan gained worldwide fame in 2017 after he was featured on the popular dating app Tinder in an effort to raise money for the IVF procedure. 

Wiped out by poaching –

There are five rhino species remaining on earth of which black and white rhinos are found in Africa. The northern white rhino is generally considered a subspecies of white rhino although some scientists believe it to be a sixth species.

Rhinos have few predators in the wild due to their size.

Endangered rhino species gets a chance at survival with scientific breakthrough
A caregiver calming Sudan, the last known male of the Northern White Rhinoceros subspecies, at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Laikipia County, at the foot of Mount Kenya. (Photo by Tony KARUMBA / AFP)

However, demand for rhino horn in traditional Chinese medicine and dagger handles in Yemen fuelled a poaching crisis in the 1970s and 1980s that largely wiped out the northern white rhino population in Uganda, the Central African Republic, Sudan and Chad.

READ: Poo Power: How dung biodigester is supercharging farming in Kenya

By 2008, the northern white rhino was considered extinct in the wild.

Modern rhinos have plodded the earth for 26 million years. As recently as the mid-19th century there were more than one million in Africa. The western black rhino was declared extinct in 2011.

Obstacles to success –

If the IVF is successful, scientists say there may be several births of northern white rhino calves, but the approach has its limits.

Eggs can only be collected from the females three times a year, and a lack of genetic diversity could hamper the survival of the species.

However, the consortium of international scientists known as BioRescue is also trying to create artificial sex cells known as gametes via stem cell transformation from the frozen tissue of other, unrelated northern white rhinos, to diversify the gene pool.

According to the team working on the project, the aim is to re-introduce the rhino into secure habitats within the areas they used to roam. This could take up to 70 years.

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Conservation News

From den of vice to joggers’ haven, Karura forest thrives

Within 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no man’s land to one of Nairobi’s safest and most popular destinations

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“We would collect dead, dumped bodies. Some were decomposing… others were fresh,” said John Chege of his early days policing Nairobi’s Karura Forest, back when thieves and murderers outnumbered joggers and dog walkers in the woods.

Karura then was the stuff of urban legend, a fearsome place invoked to scare misbehaving children. Chege and his scouts, stumbling on corpses by day, kept white-knuckled vigils by night as they scanned the darkness for intruders.

“It was hell,” Chege told reporters of his hair-raising first months as Karura’s inaugural chief scout, back in 2009 when efforts began to reclaim the forest. “But today we celebrate because there is nothing of the sort.”

In the space of 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no man’s land to one of Nairobi’s safest and most popular destinations, a verdant refuge in a city that has long carried the unfortunate moniker “Nairobbery”.

John Chege, chief scout, speaking during an interview in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
John Chege, chief scout, speaking during an interview in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Karura is also a symbol against land-grabbing, having been saved from developers to become the world’s second-largest forest that is fully within city limits, conservationists say.

Kenya’s forests are cleared at a rate of 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres) a year, the environment ministry said in 2018. But Karura has survived, even as green spaces are being swallowed by concrete in one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities.

From zero visitors in 2009, today Karura attracts up to 30,000 nature lovers a month, with 10-year commemorative events planned in October to mark its striking transformation and storied history.

For many years, hardly anyone came, said Karanja Njoroge, who chaired Friends of Karura Forest, a community group that co-manages the reserve, from 2011 to 2018.

Bad reputation –

Shaking its reputation was a challenge, even after an electric fence was raised around the perimeter.

“Karura Forest in 2009 was a place where no one would even want to be threatened to be taken. It meant either you were going to be killed, or that you were going to be punished,” Njoroge said.

Chege and his scouts, who were trained by the British army, could not convince nervous joggers they would be safe, and so ran alongside them in khaki fatigues.

“Perhaps a visitor wanted to run 10 kilometres? My guy was to run 10 kilometres,” he said.

Slowly, visitor numbers grew as the criminals were flushed out. A clubhouse, long abandoned because patrons kept getting mugged, reopened its doors. Women felt safe enough to run on their own, Chege said.

Local communities were vital in bolstering security. 

Chege, a former illegal logger, was recruited from Huruma, a slum on Karura’s northern fringe. The community used the forest for firewood, and as a rubbish tip and open toilet.

Today, they are its custodians, planting saplings, clearing weeds and policing its borders.

Karura narrowly escaped destruction in the late 1990s when, crawling with bandits and ravaged by logging, developers gifted parcels of the forest to politically connected elites.

Read: Gabon ready to receive funds to fight deforestation

The upland forest is a developers dream: 1,000 hectares of prime land, straddled by Nairobi’s most exclusive suburbs.

Wangari Maathai, the late founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize rallied church leaders, lawyers and students to Karura’s defence.

In January 1999, armed thugs attacked Maathai as she tried to plant seedlings in an act of protest, landing her in hospital.

A notice board is photographed in Karura forest, Nairobi. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)
A notice board is photographed in Karura forest, Nairobi. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

The violence made international headlines and outraged a public tired of corrupt elites grabbing state land.

The protesters won the day: development was halted.

Green icon –

The forest still bears the scars of this violent past. Bald tracts of forest cleared for mansions abut thriving black wattle — a tree whose growth was spurred by fires from the days protesters burned tractors in defiance, Chege said.

But its tranquillity is not assured.

Other forests, such as Oloolua in Nairobi’s south, have suffered from rampant encroachment. Even the city’s iconic national wildlife park is being sliced through with a railway whose construction began last year in defiance of a court order.

Though Chege worries more about dogs off leashes these days than dealing with dead bodies, a road being widened on Karura’s eastern border has raised concerns.

Land grabs are not a distant threat. In July, a court ruled against a private company trying to claim 4.3 hectares of Karura.

“If everybody who wants to build keeps chipping away, there will be very little left,” Njoroge said.

Karura persists as a conservation triumph. Native trees are taking back the forest from species introduced by the British to fuel their railway to Uganda, notably eucalyptus trees.

A man jogs in Karura forest. (Photo by SIMON MAINA / AFP)

Before conservation efforts began, non-native trees, many of them invasive, made up 60 per cent of the forest. Eucalyptus, in particular, inhibit the growth of other plants and monopolise the water supply with their voracious thirst.

The forest contains rivers, waterfalls and caves used by anti-colonial rebels. Joggers encounter bushbucks, hornbills and Syke’s monkeys.

Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira Mathai, said her mother would be proud of what Karura has become, “and maybe even surprised at just how much people love it”.

“She had hoped her children’s children — my generation and our children — would enjoy this forest, and that’s what has come to pass,” Mathai told reporters.

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Conservation News

Young climate activists push for more awareness in Africa

No continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa

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As Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion inspire climate protesters across the globe, young African activists say they still struggle to make themselves heard.

“No continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa,” the United Nations Environment Programme said as it warned of increased flooding, widespread food insecurity and major economic losses.

But awareness remains low and a study from research institute Afrobarometer in August said that four in 10 Africans have never heard of climate change.

At the Climate Chance conference in Ghana’s capital Accra this week hundreds of campaigners, local government officials and business people from across the continent sought a way forward. 

Togolese activist Kevin Ossah, 22, led a mock United Nations debate that pitched participants playing the role of major polluters like the United States against those set to bear the biggest burden of the crisis. 

He said he admires the huge crowds taking to the streets from Sydney to Stockholm, but in his West African homeland — ruled by an authoritarian regime that has cracked down on protests — that wasn’t really an option. 

“As youths, we can’t be putting our lives in insecurity by entering roads and doing something that Greta is doing,” he told AFP. 

Instead, he plans to focus on more practical steps like planting trees, educating rural communities and writing to leaders calling for action. 

“I think the thing we can do is use communication and digital communications skills,” he said.

“We have to share information and let other people know about us and share the efforts that we are doing.”

See also: Uganda’s teen environmental activists calls for urgent climate change action

Local focus

Africa produces only a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions and the fight against climate change can often be seen as an issue more for people living in the developed economies of Europe, America and Asia.    

But those attending the conference insisted awareness could grow if local officials and activists focus on the problems Africans confront every day.   

Akwannuasah Gyimah, municipal chief executive of Asokwa in central Ghana, told AFP he was committed to increasing education about climate change to his constituents. 

As a starting point, he wants to target the poorly maintained vehicles that belch acrid black fumes into the faces of passersby in his region. 

“It is difficult to deal with this situation because the people don’t even understand what it means,” he said in reference to the environmental impact.

Benin’s former environment minister Luc Gnacadja said one problem was the lack of access to information and education on the issue. 

He said young people needed localised data about the impact that climate change is having on populations and the economy to help lead the fight. 

‘There will be change’

Crowds have taken to the streets in some African cities as part of the global protest movement — but their numbers have been tiny compared to elsewhere. 

Gnacadja said the bold tactics employed by young demonstrators in the West did not readily translate to the rigid hierarchies of societies where challenging elders is often a taboo.  

“They can’t just go ahead and speak like Greta Thunberg, of course, the youth in Africa will have difficultly to say ‘how dare you’,” he said. 

Those challenges did not seem to faze Patience Alifo, 23, from Ghana. 

The climate campaigner insisted that youth needed to be included in the debate — and that often it is the people in power who need educating the most.

Alifo said some authorities refuse to listen to young activists and the solutions they might propose. 

Even at the climate conference, she insisted, more young people should be represented.

“We are the current generation, and we are the ones who will face the consequences, if we have the knowledge about it, I am sure they (young people) will all be here to negotiate or advocate for good policies,” she said. 

And like activists across the world, she said campaigners in Ghana were getting bolder and would not be silenced or ignored. 

“Even though we are not seeing the desired results we believe that as we continue there is going to be a change.”

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Business

Airport authorities seize 342 kilos of lion bones in Johannesburg

The contents of the crates, destined for Malaysia, were misdeclared

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SA Airport authorities seize 324 kilos lion bones

South African officials have seized 342 kilos of lion bones – prized in Asia for their supposed medicinal values and to make jewellery – at Johannesburg airport and arrested three people, the environment ministry said Thursday.

The contents of the crates, destined for Malaysia, were misdeclared, a statement said. “When the shipment was inspected, 12 boxes of lion bones wrapped in aluminium foil and weighing 342 kg were discovered,” it said.

Ministry spokesman Albi Modise said although the export of bones of lions bred in captivity was legal, a special permit was required to send them out.

He said all those arrested were foreigners – including two Zimbabweans. One suspect remains in custody. South Africa is home to more than 11,000 lions, of which 3,000 live in national parks where hunting is forbidden.

In September last year, Singapore Airlines – the only carrier transporting lion bones from South Africa to Asia – said it was ending the practice.

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