IRC gets international visit

On the photo are Randy Rieches, Dr Barbara Durrant, Wilfred Radebe, Stacey Johnson, Professor Oliver Ryder, Dr Tanya Baber and Dr Rupert Baber behind her
On the photo are Randy Rieches, Dr Barbara Durrant, Wilfred Radebe, Stacey Johnson, Professor Oliver Ryder, Dr Tanya Baber and Dr Rupert Baber behind her

VAALWATER — Tanya Baber started the Institute for Rhino Cryogenetics (IRC) in the Waterberg in 2013, in order to set up a cryobank for rhino genetics and live cell biopsy samples from both white and black rhino.
“The reason I came up with the idea was three fold. Having watched the slaughter of rhino all around us since 2008, I wanted to apply my scientific background to assist in some way, if possible. I knew that all existing white rhino were bred up from just 50 individuals in the 80s, their genetics are quite close and they are highly related. Therefore we cannot afford to lose any of the genetics of these animals if the population is to remain strong and healthy with hybrid vigor,” said Baber.
“Thirdly in 2011 Dr Jeanne Loring, from the Scripps Institute, La Jolla, USA, made the first stem cells from a rhino skin cell. This got my mind racing as it opened up possibilities of saving rhino genetics from skin samples now from animals in the field (poached or alive), making stem cells and freezing at -180 degrees C in liquid nitrogen, for the future. A stem cell holds the potential to be any cell in the body, which means in theory it can be made into an egg or sperm. Hence, we can now save cells that can in time be used for assisted reproduction techniques in the future. This could be a viable method for reintroducing genetics into the gene pool in the future, that had been lost due to poaching,” Baber explained.
The Institute (IRC) had a very important visit on Thursday, 28 July, from Professor Oliver Ryder, Dr Barbara Durrant, Randy Riches and Stacey Johnson, a delegation from the Frozen Zoo, Institute for Conservation Research and San Diego Zoo, San Diego USA.
“Their mission was to see if we can help them with samples for the project to save the Northern White Rhino, of which only three living animals remain and luckily the answer was yes we can,” Baber said.
Samples are needed from Southern White Rhino in order to carry out the techniques that will ultimately save the Northern White Rhino.
“We have been talking to local individuals, reserves and private rhino owners about sampling their animals. To collect skin biopsy samples is quite straight forward and non-invasive. A small plug of skin is taken using a biopsy dart gun, without sedating the animal. Animals sedated for veterinary purposes, dehorning, or translocation also provide an excellent opportunity to collect samples. Collecting semen and eggs is more involved and does require sedation. In addition, we will be collecting samples of skin, ovary, testicular or foetal tissue from any fresh carcasses of animals poached,” Baber continued explaining.
A key member on the board of the IRC is Dr Cindy Harper (Head of Veterinary and Wildlife Genetics and Forensics, Onderstepoort), who set up the RhODIS DNA database.
“The key difference between the DNA database and the Cryobank is that the Cryobank will preserve samples of live cells, sperm and eggs from rhino, not DNA from dead cells. Science cannot yet produce a live animal from a DNA sample, although attempts are underway for example, to bring back the Woolley Mammoth. In contrast, producing live animals using cellular technologies and assisted reproductive is possible and has been demonstrated in many species,” Baber explained.
“I first met with Professor Oliver Ryder, with Dr Cindy Harper, at the Hoedspruit Wildlife College to discuss my idea. Oliver runs possibly the biggest biobank in the World at the San Diego Zoo, called the Frozen Zoo and together with Dr Thomas Hildebrandt from the Leibitz Institute in Berlin; he is at the helm of an attempt to save the Northern White Rhino subspecies using cellular technologies. He was fully supportive and in fact said, due to the tightening of legislation around moving samples of wildlife, it is imperative that we begin as soon as possible and collect samples from as many endangered species as possible while we still can.”
Please contact Dr Tanya Baber (083 258 4850, tanya@rhinogenetics.org) if you would like to assist the project and are happy for your animals to be sampled and stored in the cryobank, or if you have lost an animal due to poaching.
Ultimately the more samples the IRC can bank, the greater the chance that we will be able to ensure that the genetics of rhino remain robust in the future.

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