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Scientists to create sperm bank for wild dogs

Reproductive and molecular biologist Damien Paris says artificial breeding is the best and most economical way to ensure that genetically diverse wild dogs can live on. [iStockphoto]

Scientists have developed a new way of saving critically endangered wild dogs by incorporating technology.

In efforts to save the species from extinction, researchers from the Institute for Breeding Rare and Endangered African Mammals are working to improve the breeding of wild dogs to boost their declining populations.

This is the first time that scientists are freezing sperm from different male African wild dogs in East and Southern Africa and using it to artificially inseminate female African wild dogs.

Reproductive and molecular biologist Damien Paris says artificial breeding is the best and most economical way to ensure that genetically diverse wild dogs can live on.

“We plan to use sperm freezing and artificial insemination to help distribute genetic diversity between isolated populations. This will give wild dogs a better chance of surviving disease,” Prof Paris said.

The African wild dogs are currently listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation and Nature (IUCN). Habitat loss and viral diseases like rabies and canine distemper remain major drivers of population decline for African wild dogs. It is estimated that wild dogs today occupy only 7 per cent of their former range.

According to the scientists, the new technique is part of the effort to make the new populations build resilience to diseases.  

“We can take sperm from dogs in a region with resistance to canine distemper virus and mix those valuable genes into many other packs quickly. The next time there is a disease outbreak, a large number of their offspring will survive. We predict that this can make a big impact quite quickly,” he noted.

The number of wild dogs in Kenya declined as a result of canine distemper, a viral disease that almost wiped out the species in 2017. During that period, the virus completely wiped out 21 out of 22 packs of wild dogs in Laikipia county, in less than four weeks.

Coupled with their complicated reproduction, scientists are now planning to create a bank of African wild dog sperm to solve the challenge.

“Sperm frozen in liquid nitrogen tanks at very cold temperatures can last 50 or 100 years and still produce offspring,” Prof Paris said.

He noted that researchers have been trying to make improvements to the technique to make it a success.

“We can now set up an African wild dog sperm bank for the first time. The frozen sperm will be taken into the field in portable liquid nitrogen tanks. Our partners, the University of Pretoria Mammal Research Institute and Embryo Plus, will help develop the sperm bank. We plan to build a consortium so that we can have multiple sperm banks throughout South Africa as backup,” he said.

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