New project by Czech zoologists seeks to help diversify zebra populations

Zebras in Dvůr Králové Zoo

The Research Institute for Gene Pool Conservation at the Dvůr Králové Zoo is hoping to reinvigorate the small gene pool of zebras in zoos by collecting semen from animals in the wild. The project is currently being tested and, if successful, could help not just zookeepers around the world, but also store genetic material belonging to the most endangered species of steppe zebra.

The African and Lion Safari Park at Dvůr Králové Zoo in Northern Bohemia houses various species native to the black continent’s savannahs. But the animals are not here just to entertain visitors. Scientists at the adjacent Research Institute for Gene Pool Conservation conduct various tests here, ranging from animal migration behavior to DNA research.

Their most recent project seeks to provide a new impulse to the breeding of maneless zebras, says the director of the institute Jaroslav Haimy Hyjánek.

“Because it is a small group of animals, many of the zebras that are bred in zoos are related and their offspring suffer from low genetic variety. This is not healthy for the population.

“We want to create a new method of collecting the semen of zebra stallions in the wild and then transporting it in order to diversify the zebra populations we have in zoos.”

Jaroslav Haimy Hyjánek | Photo: Ondřej Vaňura,  Czech Radio

The practice is already in use to maintain horse populations, but when it comes to zebras the director says it is more complicated.

“It is very difficult to identify when exactly a zebra stallion is in heat. You have to identify the exact right moment when and how to collect the semen, as well as how to clean it and store it. These are all questions that we will be researching together with our partners.”

The first tests on semen collection are to be made in the next few weeks. The local zoo is even planning to establish a special cryocentre for this purpose, where the samples will be frozen. The team is currently in negotiations with several companies that specialize in the practice, including the Czech Republic’s University of Veterinary and Pharmaceutical Sciences which provides methodological advice.

Jaroslav Hyjánek says that the research will not only provide a new method of how to collect semen samples from wild zebras in Africa, but will also make it possible to store the gene pool of individual animals which would otherwise be lost once they die.

There is good reason why the research is being conducted by the Dvůr Králové Research Institute. Czech zoologists have provided groundbreaking research on zebras in the past. For example, three years ago, an expedition led by zoologist Luboš Melichar found that maneless zebras are also living in Uganda’s Pian Upe Wildlife Reserve. The discovery, he claimed, could make it possible to create a reserve population of maneless zebras, which is the most endangered species of stepe zebra in the world.

Authors: Thomas McEnchroe , Milan Baják , Ondřej Vaňura
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