Study species: black rhinoceros, white rhinoceros, giraffe, Grévy's zebra

The maintenance of genetic diversity is essential to continued population health and the success of conservation action. In 1994, only 37% of captive animal reintroductions utilised genetic screening prior to release to avoid founder effects or inbreeding (Beck et al, 1994). There has been an emphasis on connected conservation in recent years, bringing together academia with in and ex situ conservation; however, there still appears to be a gap between in and ex situ conservation, and genetic science (Holderegger et al, 2019; Sandström et al, 2019). In order to conserve species and assess the impact of this integrated approach, a clear understanding of the genetic diversity in and ex situ is needed.

Zebra Couple


Study species: black rhinoceros, white rhinoceros, Grévy's zebra

A key element of conservation reintroduction is translocation. In order to make translocation safer for both animals and practitioners, opioid drugs are used to sedate large animals such as zebra and rhinoceros. The effect of these opioids in the individual may be influenced by single-nucleotide polymorphisms in the DNA, leading to structural changes in metabolic proteins and the physiological processes responsible for opioid uptake and metabolism. Two key genes are implicated in the uptake and metabolism of opioids in humans and horses: the mu-opioid receptor gene (OPRM1) and the gene encoding the metabolic enzyme CYP2D6 (equine orthologue: CYP2D50). Genetic variation within these genes in human and equine patients has been implicated in varying levels of therapeutic efficacy and toxicity between individuals (e.g. Wandel et al, 2002; Reynolds et al, 2008; Scarth et al, 2011Wetmore et al, 2016). In contrast to the attention given to human patients and, to an extent, the domestic horse, little research has been conducted into the effect of genetic variation, with regards to opioid efficacy and toxicity, on rhinoceros and zebra species. Adverse side effects have been documented in black rhinos (Kock, 1992; Portas, 2004; Species360, 2021), white rhinos (Kock et al, 1995; Portas, 2004; Species360, 2021) and Grévy's zebra (Species360, 2021). Additionally, it has been noted that differences in reactions to opioids were seen between black rhinoceros subspecies (Species360, 2021). Understanding and documenting genetic variation on an individual, subspecies and species level may aid in the development of personalised dosage plans for individual animals, leading to an increase in the efficacy and and safety of opioid use in wild animal veterinary care.



Study species: giraffe subspecies

Giraffes as a species were classed in the most recent IUCN assessment as Vulnerable, after having been assessed as Least Concern in the 2010 Red List report. Further, the nine giraffe subspecies carry different IUCN assessments, ranging from Least Concern (Angolan giraffe) and Near Threatened (Rothschild's giraffe) to Critically Endangered (Nubian giraffe). These classifications have only been created relatively recently. Giraffe subspecies hybridise readily in zoo settings and historically have been allowed to do so (Thomassen et al, 2013). Hybridisation has been recorded in wild giraffe populations following anthropogenic actions, such as translocation (van Niekerk et al, 2019), but is rare (Thomassen et al, 2013). Hybrids are acknowledged in zoos, and several zoos maintain non-breeding herds of hybrids; however, the true extent of hybridisation in the captive population is difficult to quantify. If captive giraffes are to be used as breeding stock for animals to be reintroduced, the genetic 'purity' of ex situ giraffe must be established, with the use of population-level genetic surveys.

Image by Simon Greenwood


Study species: mountain bongo

The mountain bongo is a critically endangered antelope, with only four small, isolated populations resident in Kenya comprising est. <50 individuals per population (Elkan & Smith, 2013; Mountain Bongo Surveillance Project, 2015). The development of a global metapopulation management plan for the species has been named a key conservation target by the Kenya Wildlife Service. The low genetic diversity of the in situ populations may be augmented through translocation from ex situ populations. To avoid potential outbreeding depression, however, it is important to understand the current population status and historic population structure of the species. Increasing our knowledge of historic population structure and current population status would satisfy Target 2.3.2 of the Kenya Wildlife Service's action plan for the species ('Identify genetically viable populations of mountain bongo which are as representative as possible of historic populations'; Kenya Wildlife Service, 2019) and is vital to the creation of viable, self-sustaining populations into the future.



Surveying the public, policymakers and conservation professionals

Translocation and reintroduction are strategies commonly employed in conservation action (Brett, 1998; Pinter-Wollman et al, 2009; Massei et al, 2010). A review of the published literature on translocation of African large herbivores shows results that would not necessarily be expected, for example an apparent focus on animals classed as Least Concern and/or that are increasing in population number. How translocation decisions are made and the motivations behind translocation of African herbivores are not always clear. Some translocations are used to solve an immediate problem, such as human wildlife conflict (Massei et al, 2010; Whisson et al, 2012), and others as population management strategies (Craven et al, 1998; Whisson et al, 2012). However, translocations are expensive and culling or contraception has also been used. Decisions to translocation do not appear to be based in IUCN status (Tensen, 2018) and species biases are widely acknowledged. Understanding what people believe to be most important when making decisions on whether to translocate animals (e.g. economic costs, ecological impact) and how we should prioritise species is vital in furthering our knowledge of people's motivations for conservation action. This is especially important when investigating the prevalence of species biases within policymakers and conservation practitioners, and how these biases interact with decisions to undertake translocations.