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Genetic diversity, population connectivity, and demographic stability are essential components of self-sustaining populations. Experiences with population management of species in zoos have shown us that achieving these goals can be challenging. Zoo-based science has contributed immensely to our understanding of the intricate and varied physiologies and life-histories of wildlife species and have driven the incorporation of assisted reproductive technologies into population management plans. The inclusion of gene banking in these approaches, predominantly in the form of cryobanked gametes, means that these management strategies can be implemented across longer timescales and greater distances. Here, we provide a brief review and some examples of gene banking research geared toward the systematic and strategic collection of reproductive materials from species in the wild. We do not present here a stand-alone avenue for species conservation, but instead discuss gene banking as a tool that, when combined with adequate species prioritization and threat prediction and mitigation, can improve the effectiveness of strategies for species and ecosystem preservation.
Jogayle Howard, National Zoological Park,
Yan Huang, China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda,
Pengyan Wang, China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda,
Desheng Li, China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda,
Guiquan Zhang, China Research and Conservation Center for the Giant Panda,
Rong Hou, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding,
Zhihe Zhang, Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding,
Barbara S. Durrant, Conservation and Research for Endangered Species,
Rebecca Spindler, Toronto Zoo,
Hemin Zhang, China Conservation and Research Center for the Giant Panda,
Anju Zhang, Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Foundation,
David E. Wildt, National Zoological Park
Historically, the breeding of giant pandas in ex situ programmes has been difficult due to behavioural incompatibility and interanimal aggression. Because some individuals fail to mate naturally, the potential loss of valuable genes is a major concern to effective genetic management (see Chapter 21). Consistently successful artificial insemination (AI) would allow incorporating genetically valuable males with behavioural or physical anomalies into the gene pool. This strategy becomes even more powerful when used in the context of a genome resource bank (GRB), an organised repository of cryopreserved biomaterials (tissue, blood, DNA and sperm) (see Chapter 7). The use of sperm cryopreservation and AI allows the movement of genes among zoos and breeding centres without needing to transfer animals, which is both stressful and costly.
‘Assisted breeding’ refers to the tools and techniques associated with helping a pair of animals propagate, from AI to embryo transfer to cloning, among others (Howard, 1999; Pukazhenthi & Wildt, 2004). With the exception of AI, there is not much need for most other assisted-breeding techniques for the giant panda. As will be demonstrated here, AI is quite adequate for dealing with most cases of infertility or with helping to maintain adequate gene diversity in the captive population. In fact, the major breeding facilities, especially the China Conservation and Research Centre for the Giant Panda (hereafter referred to as the Wolong Breeding Centre) and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, routinely use AI to increase pregnancy success.
The goal of the giant panda ex situ breeding programme is to produce healthy, genetically diverse and reproductively sound offspring. However, reproduction in this species has been poor, in part, due to lack of male libido or aggressive behaviours towards conspecific females. Although giant panda breeding facilities have made progress in producing more surviving young, only about 29% of captive male giant pandas have ever sired offspring (Lindburg et al., 1998), and most of these males were wild born. Of the 104 giant pandas in the ex situ population in China in 1996 (at the time of the first masterplanning meeting in China; Zheng et al., 1997; see also Chapter 2), there were 33 adult males of reproductive age (6–26 years old). Only five (15.2%) had ever mated naturally and sired young. This was the main reason for ‘male reproduction’ being a primary target of the Biomedical Survey conducted under the umbrella of the Conservation Breeding Specialist Group (CBSG) (see Chapter 2).
We had three goals, the first being to measure the presence or absence of any obvious physiological or anatomical abnormalities. The second was to learn more about species reproductive biology, specifically comparing males of different ages, successful versus unsuccessful breeders and wild-born versus captive born. Our approach also allowed a third opportunity: studies that would enhance our understanding on how better to use male gametes (sperm) to advance genetic management (see Chapter 21). In this case, our focus was on:
sperm morphology and acrosomal integrity;
testes development during the breeding season;
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