Conservation of the Wild Ancestors of Domestic Animals
I. LEHR BRISBIN, JR.
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.
To request a reprint