African Genetics Research Project Begins

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HISTORIC RESEARCH PROJECT: A pilot study will use the North American Wildlife Conservation Model on the African continent, including the collection of DNA and tissue samples from African game, such as Cape buffalo.

Talks around the campfire with concerned hunting guides sparked a genetic study that could affect everything from how game quotas are set in Africa to the tracking of disease among its wildlife.

"Listening to these guys, I kept noting that their concerns had a lot of merit," said Lane Easter, an equine veterinarian in Whitesboro and a Dallas Safari Club member.

Among other things, the professional hunters are worried that African governments aren't properly managing how lions are harvested — endangering the viability of the species.

"The average hunter is wealthy," Easter said. "Often, they want the best trophy animal. The guides want to make sure they're harvesting the animals that are truly not contributing to the gene pool and not taking out the best specimens, by always taking out the best males, causing the species to become inferior over time. "Right now, however, guides have no data to use to argue with the government." At Easter's urging, DSC contributed $10,000 in seed money to start the African Genetic Research Project.

"The North American Wildlife Conservation Model and the success of science-based conservation during the last 100 years can be echoed on the African continent by using many of the same principles," said Gray N. Thornton, DSC's executive director. Leading the pilot study will be James Derr, professor of veterinary pathobiology and genetics at Texas A&M University.

Derr was surprised no information was collected on animals harvested in Africa. "We do it here all the time," Derr said. "We take DNA samples on everything from rabbits to elk and state and federal departments have all kinds of genetic studies going on. There just wasn’t a similar plan in Africa."

The African project will have professional hunters take blood samples from harvested animals using so-called FTA cards, a type of filter paper. The cards absorb the blood, preserving the DNA. Since the blood dries, no specialized storage is needed. Derr said negotiations are under way to find a repository in South Africa for the cards, which will be shipped to A&M after the appropriate permits are obtained.

Once there, scientists will punch a hole in the cards, extracting the DNA through a chemical process.

"There are no natural populations of these animals anymore," Derr said. "They're supplemented, moved around and so on. Now we have the technology that will allow us to know what is going on in these populations so we can be better managers."

Besides documenting the size, sex, weight and age of harvested animals, the genetics study will help determine such things as whether inbreeding is a problem for a particular population of lion, Cape buffalo or rhino and so on. It can also alert scientists to what role disease plays in the decline of wildlife. For example, many professional hunters believe tuberculosis may be hitting African wildlife hard.

"They're finding that Cape buffalo and many of the lions harvested have tuberculosis," Easter said. "It could be contributing more to the dwindle of the populations than hunting. There’s a real possibility without this project going forward that some species could be facing extinction."

The genetics project will need to raise about $1.5 million to be funded in perpetuity. That's not much money given how much hunters spend annually in Africa, said Easter, who called the study a "bargain."

"There's a huge amount of genetic material that will be collected for basically no cost in the field," Easter said. "It's all laboratory costs. That's a very good investment." Derr said the cooperation of professional hunters is vital.

"A number of countries across Africa allow safaris, and professional hunters pretty much run the show," he said. "They know what is being hunted and where. Fortunately, in most cases, they’re absolutely committed to taking care of their resource, which their livelihood depends upon."

Some DNA collection material has already been shipped to Africa, Derr said. The project will start with the next hunting season, in the spring of 2008. Easter is confident the genetics project will pay off.

"I think the study will show that hunting and the dollars it contributes are a positive thing for the animals," he said, "and both can be utilized in a way that will preserve these animals for eternity."