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Using cloning and genetic markers to save threatened animal species in Vietnam

For geographical and historic reasons, the isolation of the mountainous zones of Vietnam for several decades helped to preserve local domestic and wild animal species.

Under the Biodiva project (2004-2007) and in partnership with Vietnamese research organizations, CIRAD is conducting several operations aimed at inventorying, characterizing and safeguarding these now threatened animal genetic resources. These multidisciplinary operations combine field activities and a more fundamental approach to genetics.

The sika deer now only exists in captivity

As regards characterizing the biodiversity of endemic domestic species, 2000 field questionnaires have been completed in an inventory. The aim was to define the zootechnical characteristics of the animals and the socioeconomic characteristics of traditional animal production systems. Molecular tools were used for genetic characterization of 7000 georeferenced biological samples taken from livestock during inventories. The data gathered were analysed using a software developed specifically for thematic mapping of animal populations (geographic information system).

The sika deer is of major economic and traditional importance, as the velvet from its antlers is used in traditional Asian medicine. The species now only exists in captivity, and there is a substantial risk of genetic drift due to inbreeding and interspecific crossing. In the hope of conserving the deer, researchers have gathered data on its growth, diet, etc, and those data have been analysed using a software designed specially for managing Cervidae, so as to implement an appropriate rearing strategy. Village workshops have also been organized to train more than a thousand farmers in good practice and rearing techniques.

Saving large wild bovids from extinction by reproductive cloning

As regards the remaining populations of large wild bovids, the Biodiva project has adopted a dual conservation approach. This has meant somatic cloning in the laboratory (using non-reproductive cells) to conserve two species threatened with extinction: the saola (Pseudoryx nghetinhensis) and the gaur (Bos gaurus). In vivo reproductive cloning of the saola in bovids now looks like being successful, and numerous embryos have been obtained at the VAST reproductive biology laboratory. What now remains is to conduct pre-implantation tests on various species that could act as recipients. However, trials conducted by INRA have already shown that the embryos develop normally for up to twenty days after their implantation in a bovid uterus. This is very promising, since the approach could be extended to other threatened bovid species such as the gaur.

The in situ approach concerns the gaur, the banteng (Bos javanicus) and the wild water buffalo (Bubalus arnee), which are very threatened in Vietnam. The aim is to draw up appropriate management plans to ensure effective conservation of these species. To this end, it is first necessary to determine how many animals there are in the remaining herds. Again, the chosen approach makes use of molecular tools: more conventional approaches are not possible due to very low numbers of animals involved, which make observations difficult. Non-invasive DNA samples are being taken from faeces collected in the field (Cat Tien National Park) and then analysed (NIAH molecular biology laboratory). Individual genetic markers are then used to estimate the demographic parameters of these populations. There is still a substantial amount of modelling and analysis of their viability left to do. This stage will eventually help us to understand the demographic risk parameters and determine the most effective way of rebuilding numbers.

A conservation strategy that needs to be extended to the region as a whole

Alongside this work, Biodiva is also implementing local pilot projects aimed at conserving and promoting this animal diversity. Six microprojects have already been identified with local players, centring on animal populations of interest for various reasons: productivity, prolificacy, adaptation to specific environments, resistance to certain diseases, dangerously low numbers, etc. Another microproject concerns the development of sika deer farming (Nghe An and Ha Tinh provinces), with the installation of a pilot byproduct production, packing and marketing unit (velvet, meat, etc). These microprojects are due to be launched in 2007.

These results are of vital importance on a regional level. In time, two other countries in the Indochinese Peninsula, Laos and Cambodia, which are faced with the same need to inventory and conserve their animal biodiversity, are to be associated with the initiative.

Helen Burford | alfa
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