Nola, a 40 year old white rhino, is the last one of her kind in North America. She lives at the San Diego Safari Park and likely, upon her death, will remain eternally on display at the Smithsonian for future generations to actually see a white rhino. However, all of Nola will not make the cross country journey. Upon her death scientists at the park will rush to her side and take samples of eggs and various other cells for cryo-preservation in what is known as The Frozen Zoo.
About the time Nola was born The Frozen Zoo, the largest gene bank of its kind, was begun. More than 10,000 individual animal samples from over 1,000 different species are amassed and frozen in liquid nitrogen in hope of using them to resurrect endangered species like the white rhino. The plan is not without fault however as just bringing back an extinct species does not address the problem of why they were endangered to begin with. Was is over poaching? Habitat decimation? Then also are the other issues like inbreeding, it is one thing to make one rhino but quite another to bring back a sustainable population.
So can it be done? Yes it can. Stem cells can be created from the stored cells, eggs and sperm can be made from those stem cells but this has only ever been done once, in a lab, with a mouse (cool!). There is also artificial insemination (AI) of existing cousins of the white rhino to create a hybrid. AI has been successful with breeding existing giant pandas and the Chinese monal pheasant. So while The Frozen Zoo may not have realized its true potential it does give hope for preservation of or resurrection of endangered or extinct species.
Thankfully, Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive physiology at The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, which houses the Frozen Zoo states – “We’re not so much interested in bringing back dinosaurs or mammoths,” she said. “There’s really no place for them now.”