Surrogacy program could save rhinos from extinction

SAN DIEGO -- Two unusual moms-to-be are awaiting the delivery of their offspring: rhinos that were were artificially inseminated.

After the San Diego Zoo Safari Park announced the pregnancies, some of us wondered how someone grows up to become the person who artificially inseminates wild animals. FOX 5 asked and got rare access to San Diego Zoo Global's surrogacy program.

FOX 5 shadowed Dr. Barbara Durrant, director of reproductive sciences at San Diego Zoo Global, as she performed an ultrasound on a 10-year-old southern white rhino named Amani who is being cared for at the Nikita Kahn Rhino Rescue Center at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.

“I study reproduction and reproductive processes in birds mammals and reptiles,” Durrant said. 

Durrant has artificially inseminated all kinds of exotic, endangered and threatened animals around the world. One of her newest patients is Amani. She is now the second southern white rhino to become pregnant at the rescue center through artificial insemination.

“I get goosebumps right now just telling you about it,” Durrant said. “When we saw that she was pregnant it was just this exhilaration. We all looked at each other and started crying."

Victoria was the first rhino at the safari park to conceive through artificial insemination.

"She is about 183 days pregnant now. She was inseminated with frozen semen,” Durrant said. 

It's a big deal because Durrant and her team have been working more than three years to get to this point.

“We need to do everything we can to save these species that we have driven to the brink of extinction,” Durrant said. “We all know that poaching the southern white rhinos in Africa is out of hand."

Durant estimates there are now less than 20,000 southern white rhinos in the world, and when it comes to the northern white rhino, there are only two left and they are both females who likely cannot reproduce.

“What we’re doing with the southern white rhino right now at the Nikita Kahn Rescue Center is we are learning, we are perfecting the techniques that we will need to save the northern white rhino,” Durrant said. 

Eventually she hopes to use DNA from the northern white rhino -- that is currently storied in what she calls the "frozen zoo" -- to create an embryo that a southern white rhino can carry.

“There have been so many successes, small and large in my career that I think certainly the production of a northern white rhino calf would be huge,” Durrant said. 

FOX 5 asked Durrant how she got into wildlife conservation and artificially inseminating animals.

"It’s the best job in the world I think. From the time I was very small I was very focused on animals and much more interested in animals than people,” Durrant said. 

Her passion and focus went from domestic animals to exotic wildlife.

“I taught myself how to do semen collection on birds starting with chickens, and moving up to non-endangered species to endangered species and started doing artificial insemination,” Durrant said. 

Even after spending nearly 40 years in this career, she said she is not even close to stopping.

"I’ll die with my arm in a rhino. I don’t know. No, eventually I think it’s important to turn the program over to younger people," Durrant said.

Younger people that can continue to get results from all the hard work she has put in.

Durrant and her team are looking forward to 2019, when the first rhinos conceived through artificial insemination are supposed to be born at the safari park.

Victoria is supposed to give birth next Summer and Amani is due next fall.