The Indian cheetah may run again, as Indian molecular wizards brace up to clone the fastest thing on four legs, extinct in the wild since 1948. At the turn of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of cheetahs raced across the grasslands of Africa, West Asia and India. Today, they survive precariously, chiefly in southern and eastern Africa, in the semi-arid Sahel region, south of the Sahara and in Iran. Estimates of their numbers range from 5,000 to 20,000. Another 1,000 cheetahs live in captivity around the world, 300-odd in North America.
The Indian cheetah, the favourite game-hunter of Mughal royals (Akbar had 1,000 cheetahs in his menagerie), was last seen in the wild in 1948 when three young males were shot dead by a hunting party in the jungles of Bastar in Chhattisgarh. The last captive Indian cheetah died in 1962.
Reviving the extinct cat is part of a much grander plan to clone and conserve endangered species, in particular the big cats. Scientists hope to take nature by surprise at the Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species or Lacones, a state-of-the-art lab coming up in Hyderabad. "If all goes well, we believe we can clone the Indian cheetah in five years," claims Lalji Singh, director of the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology in Hyderabad, the prime mover of the project. It got off the starting block recently when the Indian government approved a grant of Rs 5 crore. Supported by the Department of Biotechnology, the Central Zoo Authority (cza), the Nehru Zoological Park in Hyderabad and the Andhra Pradesh government, the project may even get assistance from corporate houses like Reliance.
A team of 14 scientists, headed by Singh, has already begun work on setting up banks for genes, sperms, eggs and cell lines of endangered species. "Before we begin cloning, we need to ascertain the genetic diversity of the species so that we can select the genetically most diverse and hence resilient species for cloning," explains Singh. The project has already acquired a mobile lab which will collect semen samples from different wildlife sanctuaries in India.
But how exactly do scientists conjure the cloning trick? Dolly, so to speak, was the first sheep they pulled out of the biotechnology hat. The process, which scientists have used successfully to clone sheep, mice, cows and goats, is called nuclear transfer. It involves taking the nucleus (which contains dna, the blueprint of life) from any cell (except eggs and sperms which contain only half the template of life) of the object to be cloned and depositing it inside the egg of the surrogate mother. The recipient egg's dna is taken out so that it doesn't tinker with the donor's dna. The key step in the process is believed to be the "reprogramming" of the donor nucleus by the egg—by which the developmental clock of the adult nucleus is set back to a time when it was about to start ticking inside the embryo.
So far clones have grown inside the wombs of their own species. For instance, Dolly the sheep developed inside a sheep's womb. Now for the first time scientists have broken the species barrier. A team of scientists led by Robert P. Lanza of the Advanced Cell Technology at Worcester, Massachusetts, claim to have cloned Gaur, the endangered Indian bison, inside the womb of a Friesian cow called Bessie. In a recent issue of the journal Cloning, they describe how the nucleus from the skin cells of a Gaur bull was fused with 692 eggs from Bessie.Given the complexity of the process, only 18 per cent (5 out of 27) of the embryos developed into foetuses. At least one, named Noah, may see the light of day.
Inspired by this success, Singh believes they can clone the cheetah using the leopard as surrogate mother. But given the mysterious ways of nature and the intricacies of cloning, it might be long before Singh and his argonauts deliver the cheetah. And before he can create the double, Singh has to have the original in his hands. "That's our first obstacle," says P.R. Sinha, director of cza. Sinha has already written to the Iranian zoo authorities, requesting for two male cheetahs, failing which they would ask for tissue samples of the animals.
The trouble is that the Iranian cheetah is high on the endangered list. Fewer than 50 survive in the wild. Under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or cites, it's illegal to even exchange genetic material of endangered species in the wild. "But if they're being bred in captivity, then legally we have a good chance of getting them," says Sinha. And supposing we don't get the Iranian cheetah, can we do with its African cousin? The answer depends on whether the extinct Indian cheetah is a closer cousin of the latter. Cheetahs are remarkably genetically similar, and sub-species definitions are often controversial. Blood protein analysis suggests that differences between cheetah populations are trivial.
In fact, Divyabhanu Sinh, amateur wildlife enthusiast and author of The End of the Trail, his labour of love on the cheetah, believes that morphologically the Indian cheetah is very similar to its African rather than its Iranian cousin, which is bigger and hairier. For the moment, however, since taxonomists put the Indian cheetah in the same sub-species as the Iranian cheetah (Acinonyx jubatus venaticus), the project is not considering the African cheetah as an alternative.
Getting, as it were, the cheetah negative is only the first of many hurdles. Since cloned embryos tend to abort at a high rate, Singh will have to ensure a good supply of leopard eggs, which may not be easy since it too is endangered. Besides, using the cow as a surrogate mother for the Gaur was convenient as its reproductive biology is familiar. The same can't be said about the leopard.
And after cloning what, ask its critics. "Supposing you clone the cheetah. But where are the grasslands it once roamed? Where is the prey base it can survive on?" asks Sinh. "Indeed," he emphasises, "that's equally true of cloning tigers or lions. We just don't have enough habitats to release them into." Critics also point out that for the most part, animals bred in captivity have failed to survive in the wild.
Despite these teeming problems, Singh at the moment is worried about cloning the animal first. And he's not alone in his enthusiasm for cloning endangered species. Scientists of his persuasion are busy cloning endangered species like the Giant Panda, the Korean tiger (for which the Koreans will use the Bengal tiger as the surrogate mother), the Huia, an extinct bird of New Zealand, and Thylacine, the extinct wolf-like animal from Tasmania. They believe that freezing eggs and sperms of endangered species is the only way of preserving their genetic diversity in a world of shrinking habitats. Conservationists however fear that this futuristic science will divert much-needed funds from the real problem: of protecting and restoring dwindling habitats.
The prospect of a cheetah once again streaking across the Indian landscape might excite the wildlife enthusiast, but it's also clear that the cat may not face a secure future even in rebirth. If it has one that is.