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Scientists go to ‘desperate measures’ to save critically endangered species

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BEIJING — Breed now, or see your kind die out with you. With extinctions raging at a maddening clip, more and more species face this alternative.

The Yangtze giant softshell turtle is the one of the latest, and scientists are going to desperate measures to help it reproduce. There is only one known female left in the world, and they recently artificially inseminated her.

But she’s about 100 years old, and scientists are not sure she’ll have children, the World Conservation Society said.

“The conservation world will once again be holding its collective breath until we know if this was successful,” said zoo biologist Rick Hudson from Fort Worth, Texas. He joined a team of scientists who traveled to China to try to save the species, known scientifically as Rafetus swinhoei.

They’ve failed before.


Keepers had already put the female together with a male in a Chinese zoo before. He is one of the last three known males of the species. The two turtles looked like they were mating. Then she laid eggs.

But they were not fertilized.

The question for the scientists: Which one had the fertility issue? Her or him? A closer look at his genitals revealed they’d been damaged — possibly in a fight with another male decades before. To get semen out of them, they’d have to go the extra mile.

They stimulated him by hand, and with a vibrator, but no luck. So they used an electric current. At his age — also about 100 years — electro-ejaculation was a life-threatening prospect. But it worked.

Artificial insemination

Then the team injected the semen into the female, and eggs began to form. The scientists won’t know if this batch is fertile, until hatching time. The turtle is due to lay in a few weeks. In the fall, zoo keepers will separate the female and take her back to her home zoo.

“We hope some children move together with her,” said the zoo’s Vice Director Yan Xiahui.

A few weeks after that, the team should know more about this species’ fragile chance of survival or get closer to the certainty that when the last of these four turtles die, their entire species will vanish forever.

Just like when the giant tortoise Lonesome George died three years ago on the Galapagos Island of Pinta. When he perished at the age of 100, he took his species with him.

The northern white rhino in Kenya is in a similar bind, except that there is only one male left in its subspecies. So far, he has failed to produce offspring with his two female companions.

A great extinction

As human populations have expanded exponentially and developed the need for more land and consumption, the rate of extinction of other species has soared. A study last year put the rate at 100 extinctions per year for every 1,000,000 species on the planet.

That’s about 1,000 times higher than the rate before human populations spread. The extinction rate has climbed particularly high since industrialization began.

The World Wildlife Fund says that rate could be much higher. But if the highest estimates are true — that we live among other 100,000,000 species — they would be currently going extinct at a rate of at least 10,000 species per year, perhaps even 100,000.

Some scientists believe we may be living in one of the greatest periods of extinction in the history of life on Earth.

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