Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Genetic Diversity Blueprint

Academic journal article Forum for Applied Research and Public Policy

Genetic Diversity Blueprint

Article excerpt

Conservancy advocates are bringing some domestic farmyard animals back from the brink of extinction.

Disregard for the environment was an alarming feature of the 20th century. The catalogue of incidents of soil erosion, degradation of the atmosphere, water pollution, and destruction of forests might almost be interpreted as a death wish by the human race. But it is disregard for other species, many of them driven to extinction, that carries the most poignant message.

A few well-known and dramatic events in the history of species extinction are indelibly imprinted in the debit record of biodiversity. In 1627, illegal hunting in Jaktorowka Forest in Poland led to the demise of the last wild aurochs, ancestor of our domestic cattle. In New Zealand, settlers eliminated the dodo--a large flightless bird that had no natural predators--in the late 17th century.

These events have left a psychological legacy of guilt that is expressed in futile attempts to recreate extinct species. Between the two world wars, the Heck brothers in Berlin and Munich pursued their joint dream of restoring aurochs to the inventory of genetic diversity by combining appropriate characteristics of some modern breeds of domestic cattle. Similar attempts are being made with the quagga--a close relative of the zebra--in South Africa, and Chantecler poultry in Canada. Researchers in Japan are even trying to recreate the long-extinct woolly mammoth with DNA found in a specimen preserved in the permafrost of Siberia. In all cases, these are vain attempts, for the loss is irretrievable. The common factor is the failure to recognize the finality of extinction.

Many other species, breeds, and varieties have a lower profile and pass into extinction without any fanfare or outcry. In the British Isles alone more than 30 breeds of large domestic livestock have become extinct during the 20th century. These losses represent significant and unnecessary genetic erosion--a waste of genetic material with a potential value that never will be known. The losses are significant because some vanished breeds possessed distinctive characteristics. The losses were also unnecessary because the last animals were killed or allowed to disappear even though people knew perfectly well what they were doing and recognized the finality of these extinctions.

Conservation Groups

In 1973 the Rare Breeds Survival Trust was established as a prototype for organizations devoted to preserving rare breeds. Since then, no further breeds have become extinct in Britain.

The work of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the British Isles was a catalyst for the creation of similar groups in many other countries during the late 1970s and 1980s. Several followed the nongovernmental organization model of RBST, but in other cases conservation programs grew from government initiatives, and in a few instances there were state/private hybrids. By 1989, national organizations to conserve domestic livestock had been established in more than 20 countries, and in that year, a global conference was called at the University of Warwick in England to identify progress and compare experiences.

The result was the formation of Rare Breeds International as an umbrella organization to coordinate international activities and spread the message of genetic conservation. RBI was given legal status at a meeting in Budapest in 1991, and subsequent global meetings were held in Kingston, Canada, in 1994; Kathmandu, Nepal, in 1998; and the Millennium Congress in Brasilia in 2000.

An increasing awareness by governmental agencies of the importance of genetic conservation paralleled activities by nongovernmental organizations. Early expressions of concern during the 1970s led to a conference--Expert Consultation on Animal Genetic Resources Conservation and Management--sponsored by the Food and Agriculture Organization/United Nations Environmental Programme in Rome in 1980. …

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