Assessing the Genetic Diversity of Red Pandas

Tobias Reiners – Senckenberg Research Institute and Natural History Museum Frankfurt, Germany

 

WAZA Conservation Project 15001

 

The red panda (Ailurus fulgens) is a charismatic, beautiful but threatened flagship species addressing Himalayan conservation issues. The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species lists the conservation status of red pandas as vulnerable, with an estimated population of less than 10,000 adult individuals surviving in the wild. This status is currently under review. The species is elusive and sightings are particularly rare due to its low densities, biology and inaccessibility of its habitat. Most of the previous work on their status has been based on counting their scats. Scats, but also hair or urine (in snow), are sources of DNA and enable conservationists and researchers to draw various valuable conclusions in assessing the status of a target species.

 

Located at the conservation genetics group of the Senckenberg Research Institute, our international project aims to establish a non-invasive genetic monitoring scheme for the genetic assessment of both zoo and wild red panda populations, carried out using the same methodological framework. In close cooperation with the Red Panda Network, we will create a reliable genetic marker system to establish a link between the wild and zoo populations. This procedure will be part of a PhD project carried out by Damber Bista located at the Central Department of Zoology, Tribhuvan University, Kathmandu, Nepal.

 

A first strategic goal will be to integrate genetic data from laboratory analysis into the international studbook to improve long-term population management. The current global zoo population of Nepalese red pandas (A. f. fulgens) can largely be traced back to individuals imported into Europe and the USA in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Although all red pandas can be traced back to their founders, we do not know if these founders were related – currently, all analyses of the zoo population treat the founders as unrelated animals. Therefore, until now there are no undisputed data on the real genetic diversity within the zoo population. The longer this situation remains unchanged, the greater the chance that the zoo population could suffer from negative effects of inbreeding or a founder effect. In order to fulfil the full suite of requirements for a viable zoo population, it must be demographically robust, genetically representative of the wild and able to sustain these characteristics for the foreseeable future. The studbook analysis will be carried out by Florian Schäfer as a Master's thesis in the study programme "International Nature Conservation" at the Georg-August-University Göttingen, Germany, supported by WWF Germany. The main results will be better information about the number of founders, effective population size, inbreeding and genetic diversity, all derived from molecular data.

 

Linking the populations will be the primary step through providing accurate information about the origins of the zoo population to evaluate whether the existing zoo population could provide possible donors for reintroduction or supplementation in the wild. As red pandas in zoos provide the perfect experimental opportunity to test best-practice protocols for source, quality and quantity of samples and collection protocol, the findings will sustain our goal to establish a genetic marker system.

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