Brazil's native wildlife is vanishing, losing critical habitat as farmers, ranchers and loggers raze the country's renowned wilderness. But while conservationists struggle to stop the deforestation, some Brazilian biologists are pushing a more controversial idea: They want to save endangered species by cloning them.
The project is still in its infancy, and no cloned jaguars or tamarins will likely be born anytime soon. But scientists at the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (EMBRAPA) and the Brasilia Zoological Garden have already collected a library of genes — mostly from roadkill and other already-dead specimens — that could one day let them manufacture the country's fading fauna in a laboratory.
According to EMBRAPA researcher Carlos Frederico Martins, however, the plan doesn't involve releasing clones into the wild, where they could undermine conservation by weakening their species' gene pool. Instead, clones would be used to supplement zoo populations and to assist with captive-breeding programs.
"We don't want it to become a conservation technique," Martins tells the Guardian. "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."
Animal cloning has been going on since 1996, but it's still a frustrating endeavor. According to the Human Genome Project, the technology is "expensive and highly inefficient," with more than 90 percent of cloning attempts failing to produce viable offspring. Some critics also say cloning rare animals could fuel black-market demand, while others argue it distracts from the more urgent need for habitat preservation.
Using the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, the researchers have chosen eight initial animals for the experiment. The most likely to be cloned first is the maned wolf, Martins says, but the list also includes bison, black lion tamarins, bush dogs, coatis, collared anteaters, gray brocket deer and jaguars.
Cloning is loosely regulated in Brazil, and a bill that would set clearer rules has been stuck in the Senate since 2007, according to the IPS news agency. While cloning endangered species is a relatively new pursuit, Brazilian scientists have been copying beef cattle for more than a decade. "Research can be freely conducted, but there is little monitoring and control," Martins tells IPS. "Any laboratory can clone cows, so it is impossible to precisely say how many clones exist."
Domesticated clones like cows and horses are justified because they serve a commercial purpose, argues biologist Onildo João Marini Filho of the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation. Wild species, however, may be a different story. "There has to be a very tangible benefit for conservation," Filho tells IPS.
While Martins says cloning is no substitute for conservation, one of his colleagues admits it could be used as a last resort. "If a certain species was in a state of drastic decline, at risk of total extinction, and it was possible to provide reinforcement, we will have the capacity," Juciara Pelles of the Brasilia Zoo tells IPS. "We are still in the phase of developing the technology, so we still don't know if it will be possible to rescue a population in the wild, but we could potentially make it viable again."
Related endangered species stories on MNN:
- Endangered gorilla population grows slightly
- Blue iguana crawls away from extinction
- Bird extinction rates rising, study finds