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Thu, 1 Jan 2015

Helping save African wild dogs through fertility

As part of an international collaboration, a JCU researcher has developed a mobile fertility clinic designed to help save the critically endangered African wild dog.

Helping save African wild dogs through fertility

As part of an international collaboration, a James Cook University researcher has developed a mobile fertility clinic designed to help save the critically endangered African wild dog.

The African wild dog, or Lycaon Pictus, is found only in Africa, particularly in savannas and lightly wooded areas. They are the largest African dog and the world's second largest existing wild canine, behind only the grey wolf.

In the past, about 500,000 African wild dogs existed in 39 countries, including Egypt and parts of the Sahara Desert, and packs of 100 or more were not uncommon. Today, about 5,500 are found in fewer than 25 countries.

JCU animal reproductive expert Dr Damien Paris, who is based in Townsville, has joined with local and international collaborators Dr Femke Van den Berghe, Associate Professor Zoltan Sarnyai, and collaborators Dr Michael Briggs and Associate Professor Monique Paris in the mission.

The scientists are establishing a travelling sperm bank in the United States in a desperate bid to help protect the future of the endangered animals.

Dr Paris said the program was designed to secure a brighter future for the curious canines.

“With less than than 5,500 animals left in the wild, this species is on the brink of extinction,” he said.

“We have fertility programs such as IVF for humans but almost nothing in terms of tools to help the breeding process for wildlife,” he said.

“This is extremely important for wildlife that either has difficulty with natural breeding or in species where it’s important to maintain their genetic diversity.”

The project is a joint collaboration between the Institute for Breeding Rare and Endangered

African Mammals (IBREAM), African Predator Conservation Research Organization (APCRO) and the School of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences at JCU.

The program, which will be launched as part of the African Painted Dog Conference in Chicago at the end of April, will build on essential research focusing on the breeding pattern of the little-known species by Associate Professor Paris and colleagues at IBREAM.

The project will start in a small number of zoos housing African wild dog populations in the United States, with the long-term goal of implementing the techniques in wild populations in Southern Africa.

Dr Paris said the importance of managing genetics was critical to species with dwindling numbers.

“If the animals don’t have a choice of genetically diverse partners they may inbreed and that can be detrimental,” he said.

“Inbreeding leads to a reduced ability to survive in a lot of cases. If all of a species are genetically identical and they happen to be susceptible to a particular disease for example they run the risk of being wiped out.

“Diversity actually breeds survival, the same with every species in a way, and we want to develop tools to reintroduce that diversity back into these isolated populations.”

Dr Paris, whose previous success include the first wallabies conceived by artificial insemination, said the project would involve the development of a sperm bank and artificial insemination strategies for the conservation management of captive and wild populations of African wild dogs.

“We hope to be able to be able to develop a sperm bank to preserve the genetics of captive dogs, and develop artificial insemination techniques to be able to exchange this valuable genetic diversity between different captive populations to avoid inbreeding within the groups,” he said.

The group of scientists was recently awarded a Sophie Danforth Conservation Biology Grant from the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Rhode Island to coincide with the launch of the African Wild Dog Assisted Breeding Project.

For more information or to support this initiative contact Dr Paris on damien.paris@jcu.edu.au or visit the IBREAM website at http://ibream.org

For more information on the researcher, visit: http://research.jcu.edu.au/portfolio/damien.paris/

JCU Media Liaison: Caroline Kaurila, tel: (07) 4781 4586 or 0437 028 175

First published March 4, 2014