Brazilian researchers are turning to cloning to help fight the decline of several animal species.
The scientists at Brazil's Embrapa agriculture research agency said this week they had spent two years building a gene library with hundreds of samples from eight native species, including the collared anteater, the bush dog, the black lion tamarin, the coati, and deer and bison varieties, as well as the jaguar and the maned wolf.
While still in its early stages, with the birth of a clone probably years away, the project represented Brazilian scientists' first bid to clone wild animals, said team leader Carlos Frederico Martins.
Scientists in other parts of the world have been cloning threatened species for more than a decade, though with a low rate of success, and sometimes with the criticism of conservationists who say more should be done to save endangered animals by protecting their natural habitats.
Martins said that any clones that eventually emerged from the project would go to zoos, not into the wild. "The idea is not to use cloning as a primary conservation tool," Martins said.
He stressed that clones did not resolve one of the main problems facing species with dwindling populations, which is maintaining a sufficiently varied gene pool. Cloning can't be a substitute for protecting endangered animals' habitats," Martins said. "It's a way to aid zoos [to] beef up their collections, particularly for animals that don't easily breed in captivity."
The Embrapa project's top candidate for initial cloning is the maned wolf, a towering canine one metre tall at the shoulder, with long legs and a thick red pelt. With an estimated total population of 23,600, the vast majority of them in Brazil, the maned wolf is classified as "near threatened" on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, widely considered the definitive source on threatened species.
The wolf is a good candidate for interspecies cloning. A skin cell from the wolf would be inserted into the egg of a common dog from which the nucleus had been removed, and then implanted into the uterus of a dog, which would serve as the cloned wolf pup's surrogate mother.
Nearly all the samples in the Embrapa team's gene library were culled from the bodies of dead animals, generally road kill.
If officials approve a pending partnership with the city's zoo, staff there would be trained to take samples from live animals from its collection, Martins said.
Cloning remains a difficult enterprise, but Martins said new techniques might boost the Brazilian team's success rate to about 12 per cent.