RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazilian researchers are turning to cloning to help fight the perilous decline of several animal species.
The scientists at Brazil's Embrapa agriculture research agency said this week they have 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 likely years away, the project represents Brazilian scientists' first foray into the cloning of 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 instead be done to save endangered animals in the wild by protecting their natural habitats.
Martins said that any clones that eventually emerge from the Brazilian project would go to zoos, not into the wild.
"The idea is not to use cloning as a primary conservation tool," Martins said in a phone interview from a farm outside the national capital, Brasilia. He stressed that clones don't resolve one of the main problems facing species with dwindling populations, which is maintaining a sufficiently varied gene pool.
"Let's be clear that cloning can't be a substitute for protecting endangered animals' habitats," Martins said. "It's a way to aid zoos 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 3-foot 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 ICNU Red List of Threatened Species.
The wolf could prove easier to clone than the other species in the library because it's 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.