Talking Rhinos and Stem Cells with Award-Winning Journalist Rachel Nuwer

This February, we aired “The Last Rhino”, a film about the three remaining Northern White Rhinos; Sudan, an elderly male, his daughter Fatu, and his granddaughter Najin. Together, they are last living representatives of their kind.

However, this dire situation hasn’t deterred a group of scientists from trying to rescue the Northern White. Using tissue collected from Sudan and his family, as well as frozen tissue from deceased rhinos, they hope to rebuild the population from the ground up.

Award-winning journalist Rachel Nuwer wrote an in-depth article about Sudan and his family for NATURE in 2016. Her article lays out Sudan’s entire backstory, how he ended up in a Czech zoo and eventually at the Ol Pejeta reserve in Kenya.

We caught up with Rachel to ask if she had any updates on Sudan or the plan to save the Northern White Rhino. We also hoped to find out why this subspecies has fared so poorly compared the closely-related Black Rhino and Southern White Rhino.

You can listen to the podcast above or read an edited transcript below.

NATURE: In the process of reporting your article for NATURE, you actually went to Kenya and visited Sudan. What was that experience like?

RACHEL NUWER:  I really didn’t know Sudan’s story when I met him at Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. I was waiting in this long line and there’s a rhino standing there. And then someone mentioned to me, “Oh, you know that’s the last Northern White Rhino male.” I was like, “What?! Excuse me? Did I mishear you?” But suddenly it was my turn to meet this rhino and he’s just kind of munching away on his hay, oblivious, but I didn’t know whether to very solemn in this moment or happy for this opportunity. It was a very conflicting emotional experience. I think it is for a lot of people who meet Sudan and the two females.

Did you actually make contact? Did you touch him?

I got to touch him, yes. His skin is really rough, it’s almost like tree bark, and he kinda makes these low, grumbly noises. He has a handler who is with him 24/7 andstands by his side and pats him, keeps him quiet. But he’s a really chill animal.

More broadly, could talk about the threats currently faced by rhinos. And as an extension of that, how did Northern White Rhinos end up in this position where there are only three individuals left in the world?  

Rhino horn has been wanted or coveted by people for thousands of years. Back in ancient China, emperors used to carve rhino horn cups and the idea was the cups would make any poison fizzle and they’d know not to drink it…

That doesn’t really work right?

Well, there’s never been scientific trials conducted on it, to see if rhino horn can detect poison. Some people hypothesize that perhaps there’s some kind of reaction that maybe originated this myth,  but for now I can say, maybe not. Then in Yemen, there’s also a long tradition of rhino horns being used for dagger handles that men traditionally wear on their belts. This really all started to come to head in the 1960s and 1970s when poaching intensified in Africa and Northern White Rhinos where hammered, especially for the Yemeni dagger horn trade. Their numbers plummeted.

Today, the threats to rhinos are little bit different. The demand in Yemen has gone way down, but the demand in China and Vietnam has gone up. Rhino horns are still desired as cups and ornaments in China and also Vietnam. They are traditionally used in traditional Chinese medicine as a cooling agent. If you’re a grandma, you would give your grandchild some rhino horn if they have a fever.

And in Vietnam especially, there’s also a new demand for rhino horn as a kind of party drug. It’s something you take after a night of drinking with your friends to supposedly ward off a hangover and also just to show off how rich you are and powerful because you can flaunt the law and get rhino horn.

Isn’t it against the law in these countries to have or sell rhino horn?

Absolutely. Rhino horn has been banned in China since 1993 and in Vietnam it’s also absolutely illegal.

But these traditional uses go back much farther than that.

Well, the party drug use is new. People think that some smart traders just made that up as a marketing scam, but for traditional medicine, yes, there’s a really long history. However, researchers have conduct controlled trials of rhino horn and Aspirin and they found the Aspirin is much more effective at breaking a fever.

So there’s pressure from poaching due to these various medicinal purposes, trophies, daggers and whatever else. Why did this have such an outsize impact on the Northern White Rhino and not the Black or Southern White Rhino?

The Northern White Rhino had the unfortunate distinction of living in central Africa where there were a lot of really nasty civil wars and conflicts after nations began gaining independence in the 1960s and through the 70s and 80s. The Northern White Rhino’s strongholds were Sudan and ,what is today, the Democratic Republic of The Congo. The populations where hammered by war after war and studies have shown that war is a bad thing for conservation. Armies will fund themselves through trafficking of wildlife, people are hungry so they kill animals, habitats are destroyed.

And that’s affected elephants too, right? There was a census that showed over the last 10 years that the central African bush elephants had been decimated as well.

Definitely. I mean, across the continent elephants have declined by 30 percent overall in seven years. But more so in places where conflict has broken out. The first and second Congo wars were sort of the last nail in the coffin for this subspecies unfortunately.

As you outline in your article, and as “The Last Rhino” film portrays, there is a group of scientists trying to resuscitate the species. They want to take these three individuals and expand them out into a sustainable population. Could you walk us through the science?

There are so many challenges to this idea, but they are very determined to try because it’s really the last hope for this subspecies. There are sort of two lines of investigation here, one is extracting egg cells from Fatu and Najin, the last two living female Northern White Rhinos. Neither of them can actually carry a pregnancy to term; one of them has a messed up uterus and the other had an encounter with an overzealous male Southern White Rhino that messed up her ankles, so she wouldn’t be able to carry to term.

If scientists can extract those eggs, and the eggs are healthy, then they can be fertilized with frozen sperm from already deceased male Northern White Rhinos that have been kept in deep freeze in Berlin. The resulting embryos will be implanted into a female Southern White Rhino and the baby will be brought to term.

And the reason they would do this, they would take that embryo and implant it in a Southern White Rhino, is because these two older females cannot carry a baby to term?

That’s right. One of them has had some kind of horrible infection that left her uterus warped, and the other, as I mentioned, has this problem with her tendons where she can’t be mounted by a male, so she could not carry that several hundred pound calf to term.

And then you said there’s a second plan…

This one is even crazier. It’s the stuff of science fiction but I love it. There was this breakthrough technology that came out a few years ago called induced pluripotent stem cells, which actually won the Nobel Prize. Basically, you take a normal [skin] cell and coax it into becoming a stem cell, which is more or less like a blank canvas for creating any kind of cell in the body. If you can take a cell from a Northern White Rhino, coax it into becoming an pluripotent stem cell, you can  turn it into a sperm and or egg cell. If you unite the sperm and egg cells, you will get a rhino embryo.

Has this ever been tried in other species?

Yes, there are signs that this could work. A Japanese researcher recently used this method to create baby mice. He made the cells and put them in a female mouse. When they came to term, the baby mice were fine. Researchers in California have also used this technique to create induced pluripotent stem cells from one of the female Northern White Rhinos. So, we know we can at least apply this to a rhino and we know that it can lead to healthy animals. Can all those things be put together and actually achieve a baby rhino? We have to wait and see.

Your article and the “The Last Rhino” film, were completed in 2016 and sort of left us with that question. I guess we’re still waiting for the answer.

Yes, unfortunately, science tends to move a little slow. There haven’t been any major developments as far as I know, but I think everybody’s giving their all, so hopefully there will be soon.

China recently banned the sale of elephant ivory, which is a big win for the conservation of elephants. Are there any encouraging signs when it comes to rhinos?

More and more countries are paying attention to this. More and more countries are taking it seriously. The U.S. has made a bunch of really great progress on this issue, they’ve made over 30 arrests in the last few years related to rhino horn trafficking. Now that the ivory issue has been taken care of in China, a lot of experts are hoping that they now turn their attention to curbing the rhino horn trade there. In Vietnam, meanwhile, there’s really great anti-demand campaigns to try to just change people’s minds about using it. The results so far are mixed, but it’s also early days. The thing is, the laws are already there. They just need to be enforced and taken seriously. And unfortunately, in Africa, [changes in laws] have not reflected any changes on the ground in terms of poaching.

South Africa just published its numbers of rhinos lost last year, which for maybe the fourth or the fifth year in a row, were more than a thousand. At this point, there’s more rhinos being killed then born It doesn’t bode well for the species but we still have time to change that.

Do we know how many rhinos are left in the wild?

There are around 30,000 rhinos left on the planet and that is of all five species, including the Northern White Rhino. Most of them are Southern White Rhinos and of course they’re the ones, just in terms of sheer numbers, that are also getting nailed the hardest by poaching.

And the reason most of those rhinos still exist is because they’re in some kind of reserve or on private land, correct?

Absolutely. The majority of the world’s rhinos live in South Africa and almost all of them, if not all, are in national parks and are privately owned by rhino owners who are incentivized to keep the species alive because they can bring tourists in or hunters and make money off of them. There’s a popular saying in southern Africa, “If it pays, it stays.”  But whether you support hunting or not, it has helped rhinos back from the brink.