SAN DIEGO, Ca. (CBS) — The birth of any new member of an endangered species is a cause for celebration.
But the arrival of a baby rhino in San Diego has implications not just for his own kind, but for an even rarer breed.
Only two Northern White Rhinos are left in the world.
But now a special delivery is giving renewed hope for their survival.
This scampering calf is named Edward. He and his mom, Victoria, are Southern White Rhinos, a distant relative of the northern white.
Jonnie Capiro is the lead rhino keeper.
“They do have behaviors that are quite like a puppy,” Capiro said. “And that tail just wags and it makes us feel he’s just happy to be alive and happy to be here.”
No one is happier than Barbara Durrant, the zoo’s director of reproductive science. Edward is the very first baby rhino born in North America using artificial insemination and frozen sperm.
This reproductive technology is well-established in humans now. Why is this so challenging in rhinos?
“The techniques that we’re developing are difficult because we don’t understand the complexities and intricacies of her reproductive cycle and her reproductive anatomy is very complicated,” Durrant said.
To decipher the rhino’s reproductive system, keepers trained Victoria to walk into a chute and stand for ultrasounds. That led to successful artificial insemination.
Assisted reproduction is the only way to save the northern whites
“It’s a big step in the overall plan which is to help the Northern White rhino come back from the brink of extinction,” Durrant said.
The hope is southern whites will eventually become surrogate mothers for northern white embryos.
Creating those embryos depends on futuristic science taking place in the Safari Park’s frozen zoo — the largest gene bank in the world with samples from some 10,000 animals, including northern whites.
The next step, they’ve transformed rhino skin cells into stem cells.
“A stem cell has the potential to become any other cell in the body,” Durrant said. “And the eventual goal is to direct them all the way to sperm and eggs.”
They’ve succeeded in turning stem cells into beating cardiac muscle that makes up part of a heart.
While creating sperm and eggs is likely years away, they have impregnated another southern white.
Durrant says the arrival of one more healthy baby will be cause for celebration.
“Because doing something one time doesn’t prove you can do it,” Durrant said. “We want to make sure that this technique of artificial reproduction is routine and reliable.”
The artificial insemination takes about 20 minutes but the gestation takes some 16-18 months. This is a long term commitment for Durrant, and it’s personal. The Safari Park cared for Nola, a northern white female, until her death in 2015.
“We feel a responsibility as a member of the species that caused their extinction,” Durrant said.