The roar of the wild lion is powerful, and on a starry night out in the wild, can make any grown man shudder. It’s no wonder, fierce, strong and majestic in appearance, lions command respect and have earned the title; “King of the Beasts”. Home to mainly Africa, their numbers have reduced by more than 40% over the last two centuries, and it’s estimated that only between 20 000-35000 still roam, mainly in game parks and reserves in Sub-Saharan Africa. They have no enemies, except man, and with human populations growing and taking lion habitat, we may soon reach the point where the African lion may become extinct and their roar will not be heard on any night.
The drastic decline in the population numbers of African wildlife species is what inspired the owners and scientists involved with the Ukutula Conservation Centre (UCC) to establish the first privately owned Genetic Biobank for endangered African mammals and offer a platform for multi-disciplinary national and international research. This state-of-the-art research and conservation facility is situated on 260 hectares of unspoiled bushveld west of Pretoria, near Brits. The initial stage of buildings to house the Biobank has been completed and the laboratory has recently been equipped with brand new equipment, some of which was sponsored by the scientific company Labotec. “The equipment so generously sponsored for the laboratory has been invaluable for the work undertaken at the UCC” says Willi Jacobs, owner and founder of the UCC. “Since the launch of the Biobank in February, we have hosted the Tshwane University of Technology final year Veterinary Technology students for a five days competency module” (watch the video). “We have also done various procedures, collecting bio-data and samples to be stored at the biobank”. “In addition”, says Willi, “since the beginning of May, we have been hosting a research project from the University of Pretoria which aims to study and document the reproductive cycle of the female African lion. This is a long-term project and here too, the equipment sponsored will be of incredible value”.
The critical decline in especially the lion population numbers consequentially results in a decrease in genetic diversity. By preserving the viable genetic and reproductive material, especially sperm, of the fittest and strongest of a species, a healthy and diverse genetic pool is stored safely for future generations. All research at the UCC is conducted by expert scientists, veterinarians and zoologists from research and academic institutions locally and abroad.
Since 2006, numerous research studies have been completed by various research institutions and scientists at Ukutula. For instance, Dr Imke Lüders, a renowned wildlife veterinarian and reproduction specialist from Germany, was able to use her results from the research with lions at Ukutula to successfully breed a pair of Asiatic Golden Cats, using artificial insemination for the first time to ensure the future of this rare and beautiful species. During Dr Lüders research, a new semen collection method was pioneered at the UCC . While performing transrectal ultrasound, a urethral catheter is advanced in which the semen may gather by capillary forces. When performing this procedure, the health of the animal’s internal organs can be checked simultaneously. This method ensures the collection of higher concentrated semen samples compared to the standard methods employing electro ejaculation.
Surprisingly, there is still much we don’t know about the lion and other wild game. For instance, National Geographic filmed a documentary at Ukutula about the development of the foetus in the lions´ womb, which revealed never before known facts. More examples of unique research done at the UCC includes studies on lions’ big yawning habits. A Swedish university conducted psychology research projects to compare the contagious yawning effects on the pride and empathetic relationships in humans. From dental work, to genetic research to studying bovine tuberculosis (BTB) – these are just some of the areas of research undertaken at the UCC. The spotted hyena is one of a few animals resistant to BTB. BTB is highly prevalent in game parks such as the Kruger National Park and poses a threat to many species. A local university intends working with the UCC’s resident spotted hyenas to try and discover what makes them resistant to the causative agent/bacteria.
Education of the public is vitally important to Willi & Gill Jacobs, the owners and founders of the UCC. Willi mentions, “If people value something, they protect it, and therefore they need to know about it to care about it”. For this reason, they feel it’s vitally important to educate the student academia and public. In addition to the various Wildlife and Conservation courses and educational programs for post graduate students and schools, the UCC invites around 4000 school children each year, many from the poorest of communities to attend an educational wildlife program. For most of them, this is their first introduction to the large predators, where they can see their majestic appearance, hear them roar, and learn to respect their plight.
The declining wildlife population is critically related to restricted territories (habitat isolation), inbreeding and poaching by man. Therefore, reproductive performance is of utmost importance. If we remove the insects from the cycle of life the entire biological network will fall apart, can you imagine what would happen if we remove the large predators of Africa? “Wildlife conservation through ethical scientific research and development is the only realistic and long-term solution to our dwindling wildlife populations and other conservation challenges”, says Willi. The valuable data and bio-material stored in the UCC Biobank will form part of the ex-situ population management and conservation. They may become vital tools for the advancement of Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART). ART will hopefully contribute to the restoration of genetic diversity of endangered wildlife, for both in-and ex situ populations.