Tue, Aug 31, 2010 - Page 16 News List

Zoo aims to save endangered species from extinction

San Diego Zoo began collecting skin samples from rare animals in 1972 in the hope they might be used to protect these endangered species in the future. A breakthrough in stem-cell technology means that day is getting closer

By Paul Harris  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Ryder makes no secret of how emotionally attached he is to saving the northern white rhino while there are still living animals, rather than just reviving some later entirely from a test tube. He recalls witnessing the birth of a female northern white rhino more than 20 years ago and watching it being introduced to its herd: something that would be lost for ever if the last northern white rhino died before Loring’s technology is perfected. “I saw her meet the rest of the rhino herd. There was a clear sense of how to meet the baby. If we wait until there are no white rhinos and then one is created from a test tube, to whom are we going to introduce it?” he says. “My feelings about the rhino come straight from the heart. I am not ready to give up on this rhino.”

Sadly, it is already too late for other species. The Frozen Zoo already holds samples from animals that are now extinct. One such is the po’ouli bird, a species of honeycreeper that lived in Hawaii and was only discovered in 1973. Unfortunately, the last recorded sighting of the po’ouli was in 2004, and it is thought to be extinct, assailed by habitat loss and the introduction of disease by humans. Now it resides only in the Frozen Zoo in the form of its skin cells preserved and frozen. Ryder, sticking with his belief that there is no point in rescuing the already extinct, hopes instead that studying the po’ouli bird’s genes will help conservationists prevent other related and endangered species from following the same path. “Maybe we cannot bring back the po’ouli, but we can use its secrets to help others,” he says.

Ryder believes the importance of the Frozen Zoo cannot be overestimated in the face of the vast pressures that humanity is putting on the creatures with which it shares the planet. In fact the Frozen Zoo’s collection of samples is so valuable that a secret duplicate collection has been established in case a natural or manmade disaster were to strike the original. “No time that people have kept something safe in just one place has it worked. This is a globally important depository and its importance is not going to decrease. Over time there is going to be a big disaster. So we have to insure against that,” he says. He is also keen on reaching out to other, smaller frozen zoos that exist elsewhere, such as one at the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans and one at the University of Nottingham. He hopes one day a global network of frozen zoos will be established to provide the ultimate insurance policy to carry the Earth’s rarest animal species into the future. “Having a duplicate site is an important step but in the long run we need to have a global network,” he explains. “The future will thank the present generation for saving what we can save. We have to look beyond the current moment. People who are not yet born will greatly appreciate what we can do.”

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