Northern white rhino caretaker Zacharia Kipkirui tries to settle down a restless Fatu while she’s kept in a small boma (livestock enclosure). (Justin Mott)

Rhino caretakers at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya try to coax Najin into position for her procedure. (Justin Mott)

Najin and Fatu, two female northern white rhinos, are the last of their kind, but the “BioRescue” program is working to change that. In August, a group of scientists and conservationists harvested eggs from the two rhinos. Using semen from deceased male northern white rhinos, the eggs were artificially inseminated, and viable embryos were created. On Dec. 17, the procedure was repeated, and a new embryo was created, greatly increasing the chances of saving the subspecies from extinction.

Photographer Justin Mott traveled to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya to document the December procedure as part of his ongoing project, Kindred Guardians. The project tells the stories of people who have dedicated their lives to helping animals. Mott first photographed the rhinos and their caretakers in April.

“I knew right when I arrived at Ol Pejeta and laid eyes on Fatu and Najin that this story was special and that this wasn’t going to be just a one-time visit,” Mott said.

During the procedure, the animals were placed under general anesthetic. With an ultrasound to guide them, veterinarians used a probe to harvest three eggs from Najin and six from Fatu. The rhinos’ caretakers watched the whole time, holding onto their horns and petting them through the process.

“Zacharia, the head caretaker for Fatu and Najin, told me he barely slept the night before,” Mott said. “They were nervous, everyone was nervous, can you imagine if one of them happened to die during the procedure? The population of the northern white rhino would be cut in half and down to only one left on the planet.”

Although the BioRescue team was under enormous pressure, they were calm and collected during the procedure. Mott describes them as “the Navy SEALs of veterinarians.”

After the eggs were harvested, they were transported to Italy where the embryo was created. The embryo is being stored in liquid nitrogen, along with the two embryos from the first procedure. The next step would be for the embryos to be transferred to a southern white rhino surrogate mother with hopes for the birth of a northern white rhino calf. This crucial step in saving the subspecies may happen in 2020.

Although the rhinos are in a grim situation, the BioRescue program, a collective effort by the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research (Leibniz-IZW), Avantea, Dvůr Králové Zoo, Ol Pejeta Conservancy and the Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS), is on the right track.

When Mott first photographed Najin and Fatu, he did not feel very optimistic about the survival of the northern white rhino, but now he says he is hanging on to hope by a strand.

“This situation is dire, as is the situation for many animals facing extinction. But being down to only two remaining it is so final. I must see this all through,” Mott said. “The BioRescue team encapsulates what my entire project is about. They are leading the attempt to save the northern white rhinos from extinction. Trying a Hail Mary pass, if you will. I’m also holding on to hope for a rare win in wildlife conservation. The world needs it.”

Ol Pejeta rhino caretakers try to rock Najin into position on the ground after she is slightly sedated to prepare her for the procedure where she will fully undergo anesthesia. (Justin Mott)

Najin, the elder of the two northern white rhinos, is looked after by one of the Kenya Wildlife Service veterinary staff while undergoing anesthesia during the procedure. (Justin Mott)

A medicine travel box with sedatives, anesthetics and emergency drugs to provide immobilization and anesthesia for Fatu and Najin’s procedure. The veterinarians applied a specific anesthesia protocol optimized for safe and repeated application of advanced assisted reproductive technologies in rhinos. (Justin Mott)

Semen of Sudan, the last male northern white rhino that died in March 2018, is prepared for reallocation from Kenya to Germany. The semen was stored in liquid nitrogen since it was collected in 2014. Using special transport containers also filled with liquid nitrogen, the semen made its way safely to the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, where its usability for future in vitro embryos will be examined. (Justin Mott)

Adjunct professor Robert Hermes, left, and Thomas Hildebrandt, both from Leibniz-IZW, and the BioRescue team search for oocytes inside Fatu during the procedure. (Justin Mott)

Thomas Hildebrandt looks under the microscope at the eggs collected from one of the northern white rhino females immediately after the procedure on Dec. 17. It is the second time that Hildebrandt and his team have collected eggs from the northern white rhinos, a procedure never done before August 2019. (Justin Mott)

Frank Göritz, the head veterinarian at Leibniz-IZW, assists Fatu as she awakens after the anesthesia wears off from her procedure. (Justin Mott)

Najin takes a nap in the open field during the day while caretakers take note of her behavior to report to the BioRescue team before the ovum pickup procedure the following day. (Justin Mott)

Adjunct professor Robert Hermes loads the nine immature egg cells — three from Najin and six from Fatu — onto a plane from Nanyuki en route to Nairobi and then to Italy at the Avantea lab, where they will be fertilized with northern white rhino sperm in the hope of creating pure northern white rhino embryos. (Justin Mott)

Northern white rhino caretakers Zacharia Kipkirui, left, and Peter Esegon usher Fatu and Najin into their holding area. (Justin Mott)

More on In Sight:

‘No Man’s Land’: The plight of the northern white rhino

Under the sea: Ralph Pace combines a love of science and photography

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