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Protecting endangered species at a genetic level


Understanding genetic variation to ensure the future of endangered species

Conserving endangered species is an urgent mission requiring a multifaceted approach. Despite the growth of conservation genetics, it has failed to be effectively used in real-world conservation activity. Cardiff University researchers applied their expertise in conservation genetics to assess genetic diversity and monitor genetic diversity in conservation and highlight areas of danger. Their research directly impacted international  policies on selective breeding of endangered species, improved conservation practices and global standards of conservation.


The importance of genetic variation

Genetic variation is an essential component of biological diversity and it is an important factor in building the resilience of populations, species and ecosystems against environmental changes. A series of Cardiff research studies, led by Professor Mike Bruford, helped address this gap. Focused on genetic analysis and biodiversity in both wild and domesticated animal species, they highlighted a complex interplay of genetics, behaviour, social structures, the physical environment and human activity required for biodiversity conservation.

Cardiff University researchers successfully applied conservation genetics to conservation efforts with real-world impact. By assessing the genetic diversity of species to understand the extent of species loss in a range of endangered populations of various species and measuring the full extent of genetic loss in wild populations.

This type of analysis enables conservation actions:

  • The movement of animals to improve localised breeding which protects or improves genetic diversity and improves population numbers.
  • Compiling genetic data to monitor populations of conservation concern, ensuring that captive populations are representative of the genetic diversity of the full wild population.
  • Highlighting the damaging effects of intentional genetic manipulation on wildlife, which are practices that are motivated by organisations who prioritise the desires of tourists and game hunters, rather than the best interests of species conservation. These include approaches such as unregulated breeding, inbreeding, hybridisation and movement of animals.

The application of Cardiff University’s research methods consolidated an approach to conservation which prioritised the assessment of genetic data to inform conservation practice on the ground.


Combatting genetic manipulation in Trophy hunting


Namibia Trophy hunting is a multi-million dollar industry in some Africa nations. Creation of game animals with unnatural genetic traits, such as specific novel coat colours, has become a threat to natural biodiversity.

Based on research from Cardiff University, led by Dr Isa-Rita Russo, the Namibian Government launched a National Policy on Selective and Intensive Breeding of Wildlife for Commercial Purposes to protect the long-term viability of wildlife populations. The policy committed to regulate the practice of selective and intensive breeding through the development of regulations.

"The involvement of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Conservation Genetics Specialist Group via Professor Mike Bruford and the recent publication of the article Intentional Genetic Manipulation as a conservation threat has played a central role in the development of our policy thinking in this arena."
Deputy Director of Wildlife Monitoring and Research in the Ministry of Environment and Tourism, Namibia

Protecting the Bojer’s skink

The Bojer’s skink has suffered a catastrophic population loss, only found on several small islets of Mauritius. The future of the Bojer’s skink was so precarious that it was made a critical priority for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation.

Cardiff University researchers, led by Dr Isa-Rita Russo, analysed the genetic diversity of the local skink population and was able to successfully assist in the National Parks Service of Mauritius and the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation’s conservation efforts. Their research supported the re-establishment of the skink populations on islands where native populations were significantly diminished.

The Montserrat Mountain Chicken Frog

The Mountain Chicken Frog population in Montserrat has declined by over 90%, caused by a fungal infection called amphibian chytridiomycosis.

The Durrell Wildlife Trust used Cardiff University research on the genetic diversity of the Montserrat Mountain Chicken Frog to improve their captive breeding programme. Led by Pablo Orozco-ter Wengel, the research was the first to describe the impact of the amphibian chytridiomycosis disease on the genetic diversity of the species. The results allowed the Durrell Wildlife Trust to design a new captive breeding programme to restore the species.

Saving the African rhinoceros

Mother and baby black rhinos

Conservation efforts for the African rhino populations are an urgent challenge. The genetic data provided vital information to conservation efforts of the iconic species.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature African Rhino Specialist Group prized the Cardiff University’s genetic conservation research.

“Our genetics education has been advanced thanks to the understandable and clear way Professor Bruford presented and explained the latest genetic issues and concepts.”
Chair and Scientific Officer of the International Union for Conservation of Nature African Rhino Specialist Group.

Global impact on biodiversity standards

Rhino Hornbill, image copyright Rudi Delvaux
Rhino Hornbill, image copyright Rudi Delvaux

The Group on Earth Observations, a global collaboration of 111 world governments and a further 129 participating organisations, used data to tackle some of the world’s most complex environmental and sustainability challenges.

The collaboration partnered with the Cardiff University researchers to investigate the global standards for monitoring genetic biodiversity, playing a key role in the production of the global standards of genetic monitoring of biodiversity.

The Cardiff University research has shaped global policy surrounding genetic conservation, including influencing the UN Environment Program policy and the EU Biodiversity Strategy 2030. Ultimately, their impact has transformed conservation policy and practice protecting endangered species around the world.