Extinct black rhinos subspecies could be resurrected with genome project

Scientists are hoping to save the endangered black rhinoceros and even resurrect extinct rhino subspecies after successfully crowdfunding $16,500 (€15,000) for a genome sequencing project.

The research team, led by Dr Chuck Murry of the University of Washington, are seeking to sequence the genetic data of Ntombi, one of just 5,000 remaining black rhinos in the world.

Ntombi's genetic data would be used to create a "biobank" of information about the remaining three subspecies of black rhino.

The project could also have massive implications for poaching by allowing scientists to manufacture synthetic rhino horn virtually indistinguishable from real horns.

Between 1970 and 1992, 96% of Africa's black rhino population were wiped out by poachers, according to the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF).

Murry says the project to protect the black rhino was inspired by the fate of the northern white rhinoceros, a subspecies of white rhino. There are just five northern white rhinoceros left in the world and the subspecies is verging on extinction.

"The [northern] white rhino is just about gone," says Murry. "But when you have 5,000 you have enough of a diverse gene pool to talk about maintaining a population."

Murry says the idea of genetically engineering DNA of extinct black rhino subspecies and eventually reintroducing certain subspecies constitutes a "much more ambitious goal" of the project, but one which the team is nevertheless pursuing.

"It's best to think of that as aspirational at this point," says Murry. "[But] nothing great starts without a dream."

The team raised the required amount in just three weeks after a flurry of activity from conservationists and fellow scientists interested in the project. They have even set up a Twitter account for Ntombi to publicise the initiative.

Rhino horn is considered to have medicinal properties in certain countries, with Vietnam identified as the largest user of rhino horn. In South Africa, which has the world's largest rhino population, more than 1,200 rhinos were poached last year - equivalent to one every eight hours.

Despite an increase in arrests, figures released by the South African government show that just 386 arrests of rhino poachers were made in 2014. Murry hopes that producing a rhino horn substitute in the laboratory will provide a viable solution to the problem.

"If we can create a bioequivalent product in the laboratory at a fraction of the cost, it will no longer be profitable to poach," he says.

However, the solution is not welcomed by all stakeholders. The Washington Post reported that conservationists have said such a solution would undermine years of initiatives aimed at reducing demand for rhino horns and that synthetic substitutes are already available, yet poaching continues.

Three species of rhino - black rhino, Javan rhino and Sumatran rhino - are listed as critically endangered by the WWF, the most extreme measure on the scale.

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