SREL Reprint #2004





Conservation of the Wild Ancestors of Domestic Animals

Savannah River Ecology, Laboratory, Drawer E, Aiken, SC 29802, U.S.A.

The genetic resources embodied in the wild ancestors and long-term, free-living feral counterparts of common domestic animals may be one of the least understood and underappreciatcd components of the world's wildlife biodiversity. Whereas other endangered and threatened species, such as pandas, rhinos, and gorillas, attract worldwide conservation attention and concern, the last remaining genetically pure populations of those species that gave rise to the common domestic animals, which helped form and still sustain human civilization, may be slipping into oblivion without an active conservation advocacy.
The practical needs for the conservation of rare breeds of domestic animals have been well supported on the basis of economic interests related to their ability to provide hardiness, thrifty reproduction and/or disease resistance to otherwise inbred and often genetically depaliperate production livestock (Jewell 1985; Hall 1989; Hall & Rtiane 1993). As a result, the cause of conservation of rare domestic breeds has been effectively pursued by an increasingly active and important component of the conservation biology movement (Heise & Christman 1989). But none of the organizations devoted to the conservation of either endangered wild species or rare domestic breeds has dealt with the issue of the free-living wild ,ancestors that so far have been overlooked by the institutions of today's conservation movement. In most zoos, for example, there is usually little enthusiasm for (levoting limited institutional resources to the genetic management of the Eurasian wild boar, the Red Junglefowl, or the primitive free-ranging domestic dogs. All too often these forms are considered just another pig, chicken, or dog, and superficially they may seem to be just that. There is a common threat to their genetic integrity, however, and therefore to the unique contribution they represent to the world's wildlife biodiversity: they all hybridize freely with their free-ranging domestic counterparts. As human civilization expands into more and more of the world's natural habitats, there are increasingly fewer places left where populations of the free-living wild ancestors can be safe from this threat of genetic contamination. There are, for example, probably few areas of natural habitat remaining in southeast Asia where populations of wild Red Junglefowl can live outside the audible crowing range of some native -village with free-ranging, domestic chickens. Similarly, recent western cultural intrusions and economic exploitation of the Central Highlands of Papua, New Guinea, and Indonesia's Irian Jaya have resulted in the hybridization of most of the last remaining genetically pure populations of New Guinea singing dogs (Canis lupus dingo), which likely represent the most primitive living form of the domestic dog-wolf complex (Brisbin et al. 1994). Although the wild boar is not generally threatened as a species, the genetic integrity of its most endangered subspecies, Sus scrofa rittkiuanus of the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, is now similarly threatened by hybridization with escaped or introduced domestic, feral, or hybrid pigs that have been brought to its island habitats for the farming of "wild pig" meat (Oliver 1993).

SREL Reprint #2004

Brisbin, I.L., Jr. 1995. Conservation of the wild ancestors of domestic animals. Conservation Biology 9:1327-1328.

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