Cloning extinct cheetahs and creating test-tube tigers might sound like the script of a futuristic film, but for a group of Hyderabad-based scientists it's the real plot. They are convinced that DNA fingerprinting, creating cell and gene banks and other such cutting-edge biotechnological interventions hold the key to conservation of the country's ever growing list of endangered animals.
The alarming dip in the country's big cat population and the disappearance of tigers from some of India's best known sanctuaries has already shown up limitations of the traditional census method of counting pugmarks to record the number of tigers in a particular reserve. "Such outdated methods can be easily fudged. What we need now is DNA fingerprinting of individual animals which is both a cost-effective and a foolproof way of keeping count of the big cats," says Dr Lalji Singh, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB).
Singh claims the CCMB has developed techniques whereby scat samples collected from wildlife parks can be used to both record individual DNA fingerprints of animals and also pinpoint the exact number of tigers in that jungle. By running tests on any DNA material available, including faecal samples, they can identify which species, or which individual animal it came from. The system works even if DNA samples of several animals are mixed together. Singh claims this is a unique system and CCMB has filed for patents in the US and UK.
Molecular biologists in India first began work with endangered animals back in 1994 when a group of American scientists claimed India's big cats, including the tiger and the Asiatic lions of the Gir forest, were becoming highly inbred and genetically homogeneous. They collected semen and blood samples of a large number of animals from Indian zoos and wanted to take them back for further analysis. But the government stepped in, confiscated the samples and handed them over to the CCMB. Local scientists disproved the US team's claims about the evidence of the genetic homogeneity, at least in the case of the tigers.
"We also found that while environmentalists were doing their bit to save shrinking habitats and curb poaching, nothing has been done to prevent inbreeding of dwindling wildlife populations," says Singh. Inbreeding makes animals sterile and ultimately extinct. Also, if a species becomes genetically homogeneous, it is more susceptible to infectious diseases.
To tackle such concerns, the CCMB has joined hands with the ministries of wildlife, science and technology and the Andhra Pradesh government to create the Rs 12-crore Laboratory for Conservation of Endangered Species or LaCONES—the inauguration is next month. Officials claim this pioneering institute, spread across a sprawling 5-acre campus on the outskirts of Hyderabad, is more ambitious in size, scope and concept than such facilities anywhere else in the world.
The facility will be capable of DNA fingerprinting of various species and identifying family lineages to plan in-house breeding strategies in zoos and wildlife parks. It will also establish gene banks by cryo-preservation of semen, egg and embryos of endangered species to be used in the future. Reproduction technologies such as intra-uterine insemination, in vitro fertilisations and embryo transfers will be developed. A more controversial aim of the project is to use cloning technology to resurrect endangered or already extinct species such as the Indian cheetah.
However, most environmentalists are sceptical of such projects. They believe genetic diversity is created in the ecosystem and needs to be preserved there, not maintained in "frozen zoos". "We need to focus our energies on maintaining our ecosystem and protecting our genetic diversity, we don't need molecular biologists to act as a parachute, at least not yet," says Bittu Sahgal, noted environmentalist. He claims institutes such as LaCONES tend to create a "false sense of security" about the irreversibility of the destruction of our natural habitats.
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