Artificial insemination can help breed healthier lions - scientists
A step towards tackling inbreeding is being celebrated by scientists‚ who have successfully used artificial insemination on a lioness in the North West.
The lioness‚ at the Ukutula Conservation Center and Biobank‚ has given birth to two cubs conceived via non-surgical artificial insemination (AI)‚ using fresh semen collected from an adult male lion at the same facility. These are the first lion cubs to be born by means of artificial insemination‚ according to a team of scientists from the University of Pretoria (UP)‚ who are studying the reproductive physiology of the female African lion.
The development of artificial insemination protocols for this species could be used as a baseline for other endangered large wild felids‚ the team said in a statement.
Explaining the need for these protocols‚ the team said: "Although African lions normally breed quite well in captivity‚ the wild population is highly fragmented and suffers progressively from isolation and inbreeding. Indiscriminate killing and prosecution‚ habitat loss and prey depletion‚ epidemic diseases‚ poaching‚ and trophy hunting threaten the extinction of these existing wild populations."
In just two years‚ the African lion population is estimated to have decreased from about 25‚000 (in 2016)‚ to 18‚000 in 2018. A decline of more than 60% has been noted over the last 25 years.
The African lion is listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species‚ with the West African lion subpopulation considered critically endangered. The Asiatic lion is also considered endangered in the wild.
According to Dr Isabel Callealta‚ a qualified veterinarian from Spain and PhD candidate at UP‚ the team now has novel data for the African lion's reproduction physiology.
"This‚ together with the success of the AI births of the lion cubs‚ not only celebrates a world first achievement‚ but has laid the foundation for effective non-surgical AI protocols for this species‚ using both fresh and frozen-thawed sperm‚" said Callealta.
According to the researchers‚ the application of these new techniques could provide a faster and broader diversification and distribution of the genetics‚ and a reduction of disease transmission.
The owner of Ukutula‚ Willi Jacobs‚ said: "There can be little doubt that wildlife conservation through education and ethical scientific research is the most suitable‚ long-term solution for our planet's conservation challenges and dwindling wildlife populations."