The first African buffalo calf produced through in vitro fertilisation, Pumelelo, was born on 28 June 2016 on the farm of Frans Stapelberg from the Lekkerleef Buffalo Ranch near Marble Hall, Limpopo. The birth marks the first time the species has ever been reproduced through IVF. Pumelelo was introduced to the media on 22 September 2016.
The Embryo Plus team, led by Dr Morné de la Rey, BVSc., is working to develop techniques that can be used to save critically endangered species.
This success is hugely important for the prospective breeding of endangered species, and is why we are undertaking this work.
This breakthrough is of great significance as it is the first of its kind in the world and holds great promise for the continued survival of endangered species.” said Dr De la Rey, “Using Assisted Reproductive Techniques (ARTs) in wildlife management, although still in its infancy, is becoming more of a reality. This success is hugely important for the prospective breeding of endangered species, and is why we are undertaking this work.”
In a process similar to ovum recovery in women undergoing in vitro fertilisation (IVF), the oocytes of a buffalo cow, Vasti, were collected by a technique called ovum pick-up (OPU), which took place with the cow under full anaesthesia. A needle was guided trans-vaginally and ova (eggs) were aspirated from the ovaries of the cow using ultrasound to visualise the process.
The eggs were matured and fertilised in vitro with frozen-thawed semen from a buffalo bull, Goliat. It was then grown in a laboratory incubator, in a process known as in vitro production (IVP). After seven days of growth, the embryo was transferred into a surrogate buffalo cow, which carried the foetus to term for 11 months, after which she gave birth to a perfect, healthy buffalo calf. He was named Pumelelo, which means ‘success’ in Zulu.
“Extensive preliminary research was necessary to mature and fertilise eggs and incubate embryos to an advanced stage of development, as all species have different requirements for growth and utilise different nutrients during the laboratory phase of the largely uncharted path of IVF/IVP in African game species. Every species is different and therefore the IVP procedures also. It has to be discovered for every species,” explains Dr De la Rey.
The buffalo used for this procedure are part of a herd that has been maintained at the Stapelberg farm for more than 17 years. The facility was chosen in part because they have worked extensively with the animals and trained them to participate in routine veterinary procedures without need for anaesthesia.
“The superior ranch management implemented by Frans and his team was a significant factor in the success of the IVF project,” said Dr De la Rey. “These facilities make the handling of the buffalo easier and a large percentage of the vaccinations and routine treatments are accomplished without anaesthetising the animals.” Dr Hendrik Hansen from Bela-Bela does the routine wildlife work on Lekkerleef and was also responsible for all the anaesthetic procedures. “All the procedures went very well without any complications,” said Dr Hansen.
Dr De la Rey’s work is considered to be among the first steps in an international collaborative effort to save the northern white rhino. There are only three northern white rhino left in the world.
Dr De la Rey’s work is considered to be among the first steps in an international collaborative effort to save the northern white rhino. There are only three northern white rhino left in the world. The rhino bull, named Sudan, and his two cows, Najin and Fatu, are at home at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya. The last northern white rhino in the U.S. died at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in 2015. “We are delighted to hear about the success of this technique with African buffalo,” said Barbara Durrant, PhD., reproductive physiologist for San Diego Zoo Global.
“We look forward to working with Embryo Plus on the effort to bring back the northern white rhino for the future.”
San Diego Zoo Global has pledged to work with a team of scientists from around the world to save the species and has created a herd of southern white rhinos that have been trained for non-invasive procedures that are providing unprecedented information about the reproductive physiology of rhinos.
“Every success achieved with assisted reproductive technology in wild animals is a step closer to understanding other species’ reproduction requirements and how to apply assisted reproduction techniques in different species,” said Dr De la Rey. “The first steps of wildlife conservation will always remain habitat protection followed by animal protection.” In addition to these basic steps however, he recognises the need for improved breeding practices to ensure the increase in numbers of these endangered animals.
Dr De la Rey has also worked extensively with sable antelope and in 2011 he produced the first successful embryo transfer calves of these magnificent antelope at Tholokulu near Brits
Embryo Plus is co-owned by Dr De la Rey and Dr Robert Treadwell and in 2003 they also received worldwide acclaim for their involvement in the cloning of the first animal on the African continent, a healthy Holstein heifer named Futhi, born in April 2003 at the Embryo Plus Centre at Brits. No semen or bull was involved in the birth of this calf. Futhi was derived from a single cell taken by biopsy from the ear of a donor cow, which was then inserted into an empty cow-egg and later implanted in a recipient cow.
Embryo Plus is busy with collaborative efforts with the Rhino Pride Foundation (RPF) and ESCO laboratories to develop an endangered species breeding centre at Thaba Manzi Wildlife Services near Bela-Bela. The RPF-ESBC will focus mainly on assisted reproduction work on rhino, but will certainly also look at other endangered species.
The RPF-ESBC will focus mainly on assisted reproduction work on rhino, but will certainly also look at other endangered species.