If scientists in Brazil have their way, the populations of eight endangered species could soon expand through a mass effort to clone them. The project is spearheaded by the Brasilia Zoological Garden in partnership with Embrapa, the Brazilian government's agricultural research agency.
The scientists have already spent the past two years collecting 420 genetic samples for the species—mostly from dead specimens found in the Cerrado savanna region—and are now waiting for legal authorization to start the cloning. If they receive government approval, the species they'll be working with would include the maned wolf (Chrysocyon brachyurus); jaguar (Panthera onca); black lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysopygus); bush dog (Speothos venaticus); Brazilian aardvark, also known locally as coati (Nasua nasua); collared anteater (Tamandua tetradactyla); gray brocket deer (Mazama gouazoubira); and bison (Bison bison). Bison are not native to Brazil, although the rest of the species all have some of their primary habitats within the country's borders. The black lion tamarin, the most endangered of the eight species, is the only one that lives exclusively in Brazil.
Cloning and similar techniques have been attempted with endangered species before, with varying degrees of success. A 2011 effort to breed African black-footed cats (Felis nigripes) in the U.S. was successful, although it wasn't technically cloning. A 2009 attempt to clone the extinct Pyrenean ibex (Capra pyrenaica pyrenaica) in Spain didn't work out as well: the resulting kid only survived for seven minutes after birth.
If the Brazilian cloning effort is successful, the animals would all be carbon copies of each other and therefore not useful for maintaining genetically varied populations—such diversity is key to a population's resilience in the face of various diseases and predatory threats. Instead, the cloned animals would live at the zoological garden. "The idea is to keep these animals in captivity," Embrapa researcher Carlos Frederico Martins told the Inter Press Service. "The use of clones would prevent the impact caused by the removal of [wild] animals from their natural setting." He says Embrapa was the first organization to clone animals in Brazil and its researchers have already successfully cloned domesticated cows (a fairly common practice around the world). Now, they hope to apply what has been learned to the eight endangered species.
According to Martins, the cloning technology is expensive and has a fairly low success rate—5 to 7 percent—although he says this is on a par with other cloning efforts around the world.
None of the species on the zoo's list are critically endangered. Most are listed as "Near Threatened" or "Least Concern" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species, but all face declining populations and degraded habitat.
Martins told IPS they could have legal authorization to start cloning in about a month.