CREMONA, Italy (AP) — Scientists announced Wednesday they have succeeded in creating two embryos of the near-extinct northern white rhino as part of an international effort to save the species, which is down to just two animals worldwide, both of them female.

The embryos, created in the lab with eggs taken from the females and frozen sperm from dead males, are now stored in liquid nitrogen, to be transferred into a surrogate mother — a southern white rhino — in the near future.

"Today we achieved an important milestone on a rocky road which allows us to plan the future steps in the rescue program of the northern white rhino," said Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany.

The institute is part of an international consortium of scientists and conservationists that has been planning and developing the procedure for years.

The ultimate goal is to create a herd of at least five animals that could be returned to their natural habitat in Africa. That could take decades.

Decades of poaching have taken a heavy toll on the northern white rhino and other rhino species. The animals are killed for their horns, which have long been used as carving material and prized in traditional Chinese medicine for their supposed healing properties.

The last male northern white rhino was a 45-year-old named Sudan, who gained fame in 2017 when he was listed as "The Most Eligible Bachelor in the World" on the Tinder dating app as part of fundraising effort. Sudan, named for the country where he was born in the wild, was euthanized in 2018 because of age-related ills.

The creation of the embryos was achieved at Cremona's Avantea Laboratories. Cesare Galli and his team extracted five immature egg cells from each of the remaining females, Najin and Fatu, who live at a conservancy in Kenya.

After being incubated, seven of those cells matured and were suitable for fertilization. Two of the fertilized eggs developed into viable embryos.

"Five years ago it seemed like the production of a northern white rhino embryo was an almost unachievable goal — and today we have them," said Jan Stejskal, director of communication at the Dvur Králové Zoo in the Czech Republic, where Najin and Fatu were born. "This fantastic achievement of the whole team allows us to be optimistic over our next steps."

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