Indian researcher’s work in Australia holds hope for wild cats

Deep Saxena, Hindustan Times
Lucknow, November 10, 2011

First Published: 19:20 IST(10/11/2011)
Last Updated: 19:26 IST(10/11/2011)

Cats may mythically have nine lives, but wild cats — pushed to the brink of extinction — have not been as lucky by any stretch of imagination. Indian PhD student Rajneesh Verma’s work in Australia, however, holds the promise of a fresh lease of life for endangered species, primarily wild cats.

Verma, 32, born and brought up in Lucknow, has created embryonic stem-like (ES-like) cells from a snow leopard’s ear tissue. His ES-like cells have the capability of creating life without extracting fertilised eggs (sperms and egg) from the animal.

Verma believes he can in due course of time create life through IVF (in-vitro fertilisation) because his ES-like cells “have the potential to form any other cell type of the body — egg and sperm”.

He conducted his research at Monash Institute of Medical Research, Melbourne, on the snow leopard, Bengal tiger, jaguar and the serval (African wild cat).

The cells created by Rajneesh holds promise for endangered snow leopards.The university has validated his research and a prominent science journal in the US is publishing it later this week. Subsequently, the university will have a global release of the research.

In May, Study Melbourne, the Victoria government’s official website, had noted the progress of Verma’s research under the title ‘Technology adds a tenth life to endangered cats’.

Verma told HT from Australia, “Hailing from India, loving tigers and the cat family comes to me naturally.” His work involves non-invasive technology called Induced Pluripotent Stem cells.

According to Verma, extracting eggs and sperm for cloning is a gruelling process. “Take the case of the tiger. Who will allow experiment with endangered species? Complicated surgeries are needed to get the eggs and sperm for IVF or cloning. Extracting them is a very painful process for the animal.”

PhD student Rajneesh Verma Verma has created cells from snow-leopard ear tissue that can create life without extracting fertilised eggs from the animal.The PhD student who did his schooling from Lucknow’s City Montessori School and Class XII from Colvin Taluqdars’ College wants to bring his work to India. “This project is on wild cats, but since the population of our national animal tiger is depleting fast, I want to come down to open a research centre.”

His elder brother Maneesh Verma, who owns Dreamworld Water Park in Lucknow, said, “He tried to start the project here, but, due to the high cost and infrastructure involved, Australia was a better option.”

Uma Shanker, chief conservator of forests, Jhansi, said, “Rajneesh has briefed me on the outline of the project. Let it be announced internationally. Then we may take it forward as per government protocol.”

A guarded approach by experts is evident amid the excitement surrounding Verma’s work.

Upasna, a researcher from Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, Darjeeling, which pioneers snow leopard breeding in the country, said, “Creating life with embryonic stem cell is possible and can be done with egg and sperm through IVF. Until the research report comes I can’t say anything.”

An email to Monash Institute remained unanswered.

Darjeeling to get new off display breeding center endangered Himalayan animals

Amitava Banerjee, Hindustan Times
Darjeeling, June 23, 2011

First Published: 20:11 IST(23/6/2011)
Last Updated: 20:13 IST(23/6/2011)

The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park (PNHZP) Darjeeling, is all set to start an off display breeding centre for rare and endangered Himalayan species, specially snow leopards and red pandas at Tobgay Danra on the way to Peshok around 20 km from Darjeeling town. The forest department has allott ed 5 hectares of forest land for this.

The PNHZP was founded in 1958 and specializes in the captive breeding of endangered Himalayan species including Snow Leopard, Red Panda, Tibetan Wolf; Blue Sheep, Himalayan Tahr and Satyr tragopan (crimson horned pheasant.) At present all these animals are being bred in enclosures at the PNHZP premises in Darjeeling.

The PNHZP is the coordinating zoo for the red panda breeding programme (Project Red Panda) in India. Under this programme red pandas are bred in captivity at PNHZP, Gangtok zoo in Sikkim and Itanagar zoo. The first breeding success under the Project Red Panda came in 1994.

Since then there have been around 40 Zoo bred Pandas at the PNHZP, many of the animals sent to other high altitude zoos. At present the Red Panda population stands at 9 males, 5 females including a male cub and a female cub.

PNHZP is the pioneer zoo to have initiated the captive breeding programme of snow leopards. In 1986 this programme had been started with 4 snow leopards. At present there are 4 males, 3 females. “There have been 52 births in captivity. Most of the animals have been given out to other high altitude zoos” stated AK Jha, director, PNHZP.

“Our main aim is to release the zoo bred animals in the wild. We had got immense success on 14th November 2003 when 2 zoo bred radio collared red pandas were released in the wild in the forests of Garibans. However this has not been tried out for the snow leopards” remarked Jha.

“We will be sending a proposal to the Central Zoo Authority for the off display breeding centre at Topgey Danra which is located in the Sinchal Wildlife Sanctuary. The survey is already complete. The state government will be providing the necessary funds for building the infrastructure” stated Jha.

With this off display breeding centre the animals will not be disturbed as visitors will not be allowed. They will have ample space also. Each enclosure will be of an area of half hectare each. Initially a pair of red pandas and a pair of snow leopards will be kept.

“We will try to hone the hunting skills of the zoo bred snow leopards. Once the animals are equipped for the wild we can try to reintroduce the zoo bred snow leopards in the wild” stated the Director.

Recently Hiten Burman, forest minister, government of West Bengal had visited the PNHZP along with Bratya Basu, higher education minister. “We will further upgrade the infrastructure of the Zoo” stated Hiten Burman.

While Burman christened the Red Panda cubs Ram and Janaki and a blue sheep cub “Nilu,” Basu named a blue sheep cub “Bonny”.

Book review: ‘The Snow Leopard: The True Story of an Amazing Rescue’ by Juliana Hatkoff

Published: Sunday, March 27, 2011, 6:10 PM

By Mary Penn | Bay County Library System The Bay City Times

“Leo the Snow Leopard: The True Story of an Amazing Rescue” by Juliana Hatkoff

Scholastic, 2010, 40 pages, $17.99, Ages 4 to 10

What would you do if you found a helpless snow leopard cub?

A goatherd in Pakistan found such a cub. After observing the cub to see if he really was alone, the goatherd took the tiny creature home. The cub, named Leo, soon grew too big to be kept inside. A safe, suitable home needed to be found for this growing leopard — and fast!

This book tells the exciting story of how Leo journeyed from Pakistan to live in one of America’s most famous zoos. The author also shares fascinating facts about snow leopards and why Leo’s story is so important to the future of his species.

— Reviewed by Rachel Bedell, Auburn Area Branch Library

Kabul zoo officials in India seeking snow leopards

(AFP) – 1 day ago

KANPUR, India — A team of Afghan officials are in India to find an elephant and leopards for Kabul’s war-damaged zoo but transportation through Pakistan could be a problem, they said Thursday.

The Afghan capital’s zoo suffered severe damage during Taliban’s 1996-2001 regime and the authorities are now working to restock with animals donated from India.

“Afghanistan wants an elephant, a leopard and a snow leopard from India because at present it does not have these animals,” Kabul zoo director Aziz Gul Saqeb, who is leading the five-member team in India, told AFP.

“Indian authorities have agreed to help us regarding the upkeep of the elephant once it is transported to Kabul,” he said after inspecting animals in a state-run zoo in the northern Indian town of Kanpur.

Kabul zoo’s showpiece lion Marjan, who was blinded by a grenade blast in 1993, died in 2002.

India and Afghanistan have enjoyed good ties and since the US-led invasion ended the Taliban’s regime. Delhi has committed 1.3 billion dollars to Afghanistan — mainly aid for social services including health and education.

Some 4,000 Indians are building roads, sanitation projects and power lines in Afghanistan, and India is also building the new Afghan parliament.

Zoo chief Saqeb said his officials faced the prospect of a difficult journey with the animals through troubled Pakistan to landlocked Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2010 AFP.

LE JOURNAL DE LA CONSERVATION: new French online journal features article on snow leopards

A new magazine called “LE JOURNAL DE LA CONSERVATION” has just been published online. “Le Journal de la Conservation” is the first French language magazine informing the general public about the commitments of public and private French zoological parks towards saving wild animal species in their natural habitat (in-situ conservation).

It also details the commitments of these parks towards international ex-situ conservation programmes and the research that entails and which allows us to broaden our knowledge of wild animals. In brief it gives news about zoological parks.

In this first issue, which can be downloaded by clicking on the link below, you will also find a concise article about the Snow Leopard and discoveries made about this very discrete animal, written by Grégory Breton, zoological director of the Parc des Félins.
PS: For easier reading, we suggest you save the document on your hard disk and modify the display by selecting the options “Facing” in the menu ‘View>Page Layout’ of Acrobat Reader.

DNA could offer captive-breeding alternative to snow leopard studbook

Oct 16, 2009 11:03 AM in Scientific AmericanBy John PlattCaptive breeding of endangered snow leopards (Panthera uncia) has relied since 1976 on an international studbook that matches animals at zoos around the world for purposes of keeping the big cats from becoming too inbred.

Breeding via studbook, however, is a slow process that does not offer many benefits to an endangered species with small populations, such as the snow leopard. Now a team from the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences in Pomona, Calif., hopes to come up with an alternative breeding program that will rely on DNA instead of family trees.

Principal investigators Margaret Barr, Kristopher Irizarry and Janis Joslin have received a $100,000 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to develop a strategy for using genetic analysis to maximize the breeding of snow leopards to enhance species diversity and robustness.

The existing snow leopard studbook is “slow and cumbersome,” Barr says. “It relies on demographic information and traditional observational genetics in deciding on which animals might be assets to the breeding program. The individual animals are bred and observed to see if the offspring survive, thrive and successfully reproduce free of diseases of concern. Zoos need a faster way to determine that they are correctly identifying the best individual animals for breeding for the long-term success of the program.”

According to the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, worldwide populations for the cats are estimated at 4,000 to 6,000 animals. About 550 live in captivity in zoos. The species’s limited genetic range has weakened the animals’ immune systems and left them susceptible to a variety of diseases, such as pneumonia, enteritis from salmonella, and two different papillomaviruses, “which cause them to develop squamous cell carcinomas on their skin and in their mouths,” Barr says. The big cats also have problems similar to those in overbred domesticated animals, like hip dysplasia and colobomas (eye lesions).

As part of its research, the team will collect and store DNA samples from up to 100 snow leopards from North American captive populations. “Some of these samples will be used to generate a sequence of the snow leopard genome and to begin to identify genes that might play a role in the snow leopard’s increased susceptibility to some diseases,” Barr says.

Before that, the team plans to organize a workshop for several groups interested in snow leopard conservation, including “zoo curators and veterinarians involved in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums‘ Snow Leopard Species Survival Plan (SSP); key members of some SSPs for other endangered animals; geneticists and experts in genomics; immunologists; and reproductive physiologists,” Barr says. The team will use the workshop to come up with a “comprehensive strategy for applying functional genomics to animal conservation issues.”

The team hopes its results will also be applicable to other endangered species. “There are many other species of endangered cats such as the cheetah, Pallas’s cats, sand cats and Asiatic lions that have medical problems that could be evaluated using this same process, and breeding programs could be managed using the approach developed in this research,” Barr says.

The team’s yearlong project begins this month.