Roaring ahead

There is enough genetic diversity in Asian lions and tigers for populations to be healthy

Published: Thursday 31 July 1997

the future of Indian lions and tigers was said to be bleak. Some us scientists had reported extremely low genetic diversity in their populations, that made their conservation difficult. They would meet the same fate as that of the almost extinct African Cheetah, it was being said. But some Indian scientists have used dna fingerprinting methods to assess the genetic diversity in Indian lions and tigers. And the news is good.

The findings of the team of researchers led by Lalji Singh at the Centre for dna Fingerprinting and Diagnostics ( cdfd ), Hyderabad, shows that though the genetic diversity in the Indian big cats is low, it is not as low as that estimated by the us scientists. The team found a genetic variability of about 25 per cent in a group of 38 lions from Gujarat's Gir forests and 22 per cent in a population of Indian tigers. Moreover, the dna fingerprinting studies have helped identify animals with high genetic variability that are appropriate for conservation and breeding programmes.

us scientists had earlier reported that Asiatic lions had abnormal sperms and low levels of the male hormone testosterone. Intensive inbreeding and loss of genetic variation would adversely affect the adaptability of wild populations of the Indian lions and tigers to climate changes and leave them vulnerable to new disease parasites, they had said. The Indian scientists have, however, concluded that there has been no decline in the genetic diversity of these animals since the last century. The genetic diversity seen today is similar to what existed 50 to 125 years ago and is a characteristic feature of the species, not a result of intensive inbreeding, the researchers say.

The process of dna fingerprinting involves the study of patterns formed on a film by gene sequences characteristics of each individual. The genetic material can be obtained from blood, skin, hair or body tissues. The technique could successfully distinguish pure Asiatic lions and tigers from Asiatic and African hybrids. The researchers have expressed concern over the presence of hybrids of Indian and Siberian tigers in a wild population sampled in Uttar Pradesh. They want the hybrids to be identified and segregated to preserve the genetic purity of the Indian tiger.

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