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6 June 2008

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Taronga Western Plains Zoo staff and international reproductive experts from Berlin's Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research have achieved a world first by successfully fertilising a Black Rhinoceros egg.

The egg was collected from one of the Zoo's Black Rhinoceros females - Rocket, and fertilised on Wednesday with sperm from Black Rhino male, Kwanzaa, creating an embryo.

The breakthrough is the most significant step in the program since 2006, when Taronga Western Plains Zoo and its collaborative partners achieved the world's first harvest of eggs from a live rhinoceros and this week created an embryo which will be cryo-preserved until the technology is developed to transfer to an appropriate recipient.

The Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research's, Dr Thomas Hildebrandt, said, "The successful fertilisation has come after five years of collaborative work between the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, myself and colleagues, Doctors Frank Goeritz and Robert Hermes. We are absolutely thrilled with the result."

"Importantly it will now enable us to save the genome of critically endangered animals, either Zoo-based or in the wild. We can then transport these genes anywhere and insert them back into the population at any time, with the suitable techniques, therefore giving us a real chance to try and reverse extinction rates for some of the most endangered animals on our planet."

"Thanks to this breakthrough, the future for critically endangered species is now a far brighter prospect."

Taronga Conservation Society Australia (TCSA), Chief Executive Officer, Guy Cooper said, "This is a fantastic breakthrough. Every year we have been taking small steps towards our overall objective but this year we have made a huge advancement in successfully fertilising an egg."

The Black Rhino Oocyte Pick Up (OPU) procedure at Taronga Western Plains Zoo utilises sophisticated reproductive technologies and equipment to extract the oocytes from the females with the long term objective of being able to successfully conduct In Vitro Fertilisation (IVF) to overcome fertility problems.

"Specialists from across Australia also were brought in to assist, with the essential goal to learn as much as possible from the eggs," said TCSA Manager of Research & Conservation, Dr Rebecca Spindler.

"While this year's focus was aimed at gaining information about the eggs on the levels of maturation and development, we collected enough eggs to attempt IVF.  Achieving the fertilisation of an egg is a massive breakthrough for everyone who has been involved in this program over the past five years."

"The next step will be to cryo-preserve the embryo until we have developed the technology to be able to transfer the embryo into an appropriate recipient.  We are dealing with uncharted territory now, so therefore we now need to plan the next stage in the process," said Rebecca.

Taronga Western Plains Zoo has established itself internationally as the leading institution in Black Rhinoceros breeding.

Coordinating the successful OPU procedure is a mammoth effort and involved months of planning and a coordinated team of over 20 Life Sciences and Maintenance staff in addition to the Veterinarians and Reproductive Experts.

This year's attempt has been a collaborative effort by Taronga Western Plains Zoo and The Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, Berlin with the assistance of Taronga Zoo, Turretfield Research Centre, South Australia, Seven Creeks Equine Veterinary Clinic, Euroa, Victoria and the University of Melbourne, Zoology Department.

"It is hoped that this technology, once fully developed, will benefit other Rhinoceros species including the critically endangered Northern White Rhinoceros as well as allowing our Black Rhinoceros that are unable to reproduce to be represented in the zoo-based population," said Dr Spindler.

The endangered Black Rhinoceros is found in Africa, primarily in the grasslands, savannahs and tropical bush lands.  Currently there are only about 3, 725 Black Rhinoceros surviving in the wild and whilst anti-poaching campaigns have made a difference, poaching remains a large threat today.

Taronga Western Plains Zoo has 11 Black Rhinoceros and is home to one of the largest captive populations of this Black Rhinoceros sub species in the world.

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