In June this year Cincinnati Zoo proudly announced it had produced the world's first Pallas’ cat kittens with a new laparoscopic oviductal technique. Sophia the female Pallas' cat of Cincinnati Zoo wouldn't accept her mate Buster earlier this year when the Zoo tried to breed with these specimens. Or as dr. Swanson, director of the Zoo's Animal Research department, put it: “Sophia and Buster were paired up for natural breeding earlier this year but they weren’t very compatible with each other …......” So what did they do at the Zoo? They decided that artificial insemination (AI) was necessary. First Sophia was treated with hormones to stimulate ovulation. Then the scientists from the Cincinnati Zoo’s Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife (CREW) conducted a laparoscopy and used their new in-house developed oviductal insemination technique for cats to inseminate Sophia with semen collected from Buster.
Sophia became pregnant and three healthy kittens were born following a regular gestation period. A great succes! But what must we think of dr. Swanson saying: “We’re thrilled that Sophia became pregnant and gave birth to these three healthy kittens that will contribute new genetic diversity to our zoo population.”
These three kittens may contribute new genetic diversity to the world zoo population, but will this be the genes we want to spread. Why didn't Sophia and Buster want to breed by themselves? Wasn't there a physical problem or any other reason why a natural conception could not be achieved? And was this genetically based perhaps? The anouncement of Cincinnati Zoo doesn't say the Zoo performed any clinical tests to exclude such a disorder. So, as long as this remain unknown these three cute kittens will just attract visitors, which is good for budgetary reasons, but their contribution to zoos' genetic diversity could be doubtful.
Pallas’ cats (Otocolobus manul) are native to Central Asia and are considered near-threatened in the wild (IUCN red list status) due to poaching and overexploitation driven by demand for exotic pets and ingredients for traditional medicines, and habitat loss and rodent control programs. Furthermore, some studies have shown that Pallas' cats are often killed by domestic dogs and raptors, occupy a specialised niche and have large spatial requirements. In other words their future looks bleak.
Therefore, zoos can benefit from the outcome of the work of Cincinatti Zoo's CREW and the successful experience of the use of the oviduct AI technique. This is not from the litter born to Sophia and Buster, but from the technique as such. It will enable the use of the frozen Pallas' cat semen that has been collected in the wild in Mongolia from ten wild males. The oviductal AI technique may facilitate the use of this frozen Mongolian semen to introduce new bloodlines into zoos without requiring the removal of additional cats from the wild. Though this is still step one in the conservation strategy. As generating a genetically vital zoo population doesn't serve the wild population unless you are able to successfully re-introduce captive bred individuals into their native environment. And more importantly this should be supplemented with protection measures and habitat conservation in the native countries.
(Sources: website Cincinnati Zoo, 23.06.2011; Cat news special issue no. 6, spring 2011)