|The ART of Conserving Wildlife
From The Japan Times
By Catherine Pawasarat
PELINDABA, South Africa - The small and ordinary-looking laboratory of the Wildlife Breeding Resource Centre (WBRC), hidden away inside a small game reserve a half-hour outside of Pretoria, belies exciting developments for both the conservation of wildlife and genetic research - cutting-edge science working for nature. WBRC is pioneering the use of Assisted Reproduction Technology (ART) with wildlife species. In places like the United States and western Europe, ART -- artificial insemination, test-tube fertilization and embryo transfers - is already highly developed and successfully utilized with human beings, domestic animals like cattle, and zoo animals, according to WBRC director and veterinarian Dr. Paul Bartels.
Though a relatively new arrival for wildlife, ART is hailed by South African conservationists as a new hope for endangered species and inbred populations.
"Biodiversity is our core business," says Bartels. "We're an insurance policy for certain species. We're buying time." At present WBRC is the only full-time ART center for wildlife in Africa. While many conservationists focus on trying to preserve wildlife habitat, and others on captive populations, WBRC sees their work as a third, key point of the conservation triangle. By banking genetic material (deep-freezing it at -196 degrees Centigrade) such as sperm, egg-cells, and embryos, Bartels says a third genetic population becomes available, in addition to those in the wild and in captivity.
Those in the field call this Genome Resource Banking (GRB), and WBRC is also the only GRB facility for wildlife on the entire African continent. With WBRC's help, a special baby eland (a kind of African antelope) was born at the Johannesburg zoo in December 1998: though its father had died in the wild two years before, the baby eland was the offspring of the banked sperm.
"This is a world first, with huge implications," said Bartels. The common eland species was chosen because of its similarity to cattle, he noted, making the adjustments to the fertilization technology relatively easy. Lessons learned in the process can be applied to rarer species. Due to their isolation, animals conserved in zoos particularly face the threat of inbreeding, and thus greater susceptibility to disease. Being able to utilize ART to introduce genes from a distant population - known as "outbreeding" -- without requiring relocation of the animal prevents stress for the creature, eliminates the complex logistics of animal transportation, and maintains the genetic diversity necessary for population health, according to WBRC administrator Yolan Friedmann, who has a background in veterinary nursing.
"Genetics is a fluid science and nothing's absolute," Bartels says, "but we know that outbreeding is the right direction. We know that if we don't outbreed, we'll eventually run into trouble. If we work along diversity channels, then we have the most options." GNB, and precise record-keeping of thorough evaluations of the material involved, also enable genetic, disease, and DNA population studies crucial to conservation to be made. " We're banking as much material as possible to increase the diversity of the gene pool," he says. WBRC's work is where hard science meets Indiana Jones-style adventure, with some hi-tech birds-and-the-bees thrown in (amongst the animals, anyway) to keep things especially interesting.
Take lions, which are not endangered in South Africa. That country's Pilanesberg National Park is too small for a natural population of genetically diverse lions: Because of the nature of the lion pride, with numerous females mating with only one or two males, some males are "overrepresented" in the population's gene pool. WBRC has vasectomized such overrepresented males, who unwittingly continue to attempt to mate with their pride's females. This cue lets park rangers know when their females are in heat -- one of the least studied points, and one that is crucial to ART. Rangers then call in WBRC to artificially inseminate the females with lion sperm from a distant and unrelated pride. One of the greatest advantages of GRB is that genetic material may be frozen indefinitely, or until it is needed. This is key for countries like Mozambique, where years of civil war have wiped out nearly all wildlife but delayed development, thereby leaving pristine wilderness.
"Politics can't be solved in a day, but when the time is right, we can bring in a team of population biologists, geneticists, wildlife managers and the like, to help wildlife populations regain their health," Bartel says. Moreover, one animal's reproductive organs may provide hundreds of 'doses' of impregnation-capable sperm, or thousands of eggs, and these organs may be collected even up to five days post-mortem, depending on the species. Private game reserves, breeding farms, and national parks throughout South Africa send WBRC the reproductive organs from dead animals, with the staff flying to retrieve material in special cases. "We can get 500 doses of sperm from one dead buffalo - that's 500 potential babies!" Bartels exults.
Retrieving genetic material from dead animals means that the death of an individual may not decrease the gene pool of a highly endangered species, offering another real ray of hope for species nearing extinction. Despite the general public's current interest in both wildlife conservation and genetics, WBRC works on what Bartels describes as a "shoestring budget," with a full-time staff of four. They rely on volunteers and support from the South African NGO Endangered Wildlife Trust, cooperative game reserves, parks, and zoos, and corporate sponsors, which donate facilities, transportation vehicles and services, and equipment like liquid nitrogen tanks and artificial insemination apparatus.
"Other centers have much better budgets and technologies, but they don't have access to white rhino sperm. That's why this organization is more field-oriented," explains Bartels. "We believe we are the only center in the world with viable white rhino sperm," Friedmann notes.
Who needs white rhino sperm? Well, for one, a breeding center for African wildlife in Texas, which has two female rhinos but no males. WBRC has received an order, which would be the first transcontinental transfer of rhino sperm. Meanwhile, the organization is waiting to find out this month if two white rhino females artificially inseminated earlier this year in South Africa are pregnant. Support from institutions and individuals in wealthy industrialized countries is key for conserving African wildlife, as most African countries don't have the resources to support organizations like WBRC.
"Conservation money is South Africa has dropped like a brick," says Bartels. "It's all going into human development. But we think that the savior of South Africa is our wildlife." Wildlife hunting remains a mainstay of South African tourism, and WBRC is now collaborating with professional hunters and game reserves to offer an alternative: on dart safaris, a paying client uses a dart gun to shoot an animal which needs to be anesthetized for management purposes. The client is photographed with the animal, and the park rangers and WBRC do their work, like ear-notching an animal for ID purposes or inserting a microchip in a rhino horn as an anti-poaching measure.
"It's win-win-win," says Bartels. "The game reserve and WBRC get much needed funds, and the hunters love it." A three-day rhino darting safari might cost up to US $10,000, compared to $35,000 for hunting a rhino.