Imagine visiting the local zoo to check out the threatened or endangered species on display, and discovering that the animals you’re looking at are clones. That could become a reality in Brazil, where scientists have embarked on an ambitious plan to clone and hybridize critters such as jaguars, collared anteaters, bison, maned wolves, certain types of deer, and bush dogs.
The first animal scientists in Brazil hope to reproduce through cloning techniques is a maned wolf. Credit for wolf, jaguar and anteater images: Wikicommons
The plan is controversial, understandably, with critics arguing that this type of animal farming might generate a market demand and distract from important issues facing wild animals, such as habitat destruction and poaching.
Also concerning is that if cloned or hybridized animals should find their way into the wilderness, they could weaken wild populations because they cannot reproduce and have little if any genetic value.
However, the scientists in Brazil have tried to assure everyone that their goal is simply to supply animals for zoos, not attempt to replenish the wilderness with cloned or hybridized specimens.
“We don’t want it to become a conservation technique,” Carlos Frederico Martins, a researcher with the agricultural research agency Embrapa, told the Guardian newspaper. “The idea is to test cloning technology so the zoo has its own repository of animals, which will avoid the need to take species from their natural habitat.”
Embrapa and the Brasilia Zoological Garden have already collected somatic cells and spermatozoa from eight threatened species, 420 samples in all, and will ask the government for permission to begin experiments with the ultimate goal of reproducing animals.
The samples were collected from the Cerrado savannah in Brazil but researchers want to expand their collection to include samples from exotic animals in other regions of the world. This is expected to include African elephants and giraffes.
This is a dramatic departure for Embrapa, which has been cloning animals since 2001 but until recently had limited its work to involve only livestock.
The first wild animal it hopes to reproduce is a maned wolf, but there’s no timetable for when that might happen.
As the project progresses, opposition is bound to increase. Conservationists fear this type of wild animal farming would not only distract from habitat issues regarding rare species, but also pave the way for the commercialization and the resumption of trade in animal parts that are now available only on the black market.
But it appears that cloning of wild animals will someday become a reality, and not only in Brazil.
The Guardian reports that U.S. scientists are attempting to clone black-footed cats; Indian scientists are trying to reproduce wild buffaloes; Chinese researchers are doing work with giant Pandas; and Japanese researchers hope to someday clones whales, and perhaps even the extinct woolly mammoth.
While serious progress could be far-off, it wasn’t that long ago when this type of idea seemed utterly ridiculous and impossible. So you might want to enjoy those real zoo animals while you can.