By Lachin Rezaian

Success in artificial insemination in Persian leopards may raise hopes for rare big cats: wildlife biologist 

February 13, 2019

TEHRAN — Mohammad Farhadinia, a post-doctoral research fellow at University of Oxford, said the new move to use artificial insemination to breed Persian leopards could raise hopes for conservation of big cats. 

Farhadinia is post-doctoral research fellow at University of Oxford. In 2008, he was assigned as the deputy manager of the Conservation of the Asiatic Cheetah Project (CACP) – a comprehensive conservation program established by Iran’s government and United Nations Development Program (UNDP). In 2013, he founded the Future4Leopards Foundation (www.future4leopards.org), dedicated to the conservation of leopards and other wild carnivores.

Farhadinia said the leopard is widely popular species in the Iranian community, even losing an individual could cause a backlash in the media.
"As long as proper evidence of CVD prevalence in leopards is not available, calling it as a serious threat to Persian leopard might trigger the community’s emotions to react and to create expectation from conservation agencies to deal with the problem, when there is no evidence that the problem exists," he added.
 

Here is the full text of his interview with Mehr news agency correspondent:

Is artificial insemination the right method for reproduction of Persian leopard? Do you think this will be successful?

Artificial insemination is an advanced technique to increase the chance of breeding for animals. It is usually applied to species facing danger of extinction in the wild while their capacity to breed naturally in captivity is limited.  

There is an increasing interest in using captive Persian leopards for the recovery of leopard populations in West Asia and the Caucasus. Surely, the best candidates for such a recovery program can be those pure Persian leopards in Iran. Establishing a proper breeding program for Persian leopards in Iran can support recovery programs in other countries or even inside Iran.

Importantly, dozens of leopards, confiscated from poachers or rescued from traps over the past half century have never bred in captivity in Iran. In fact, many leopards spent years in captivity without any proper conservation role in terms of contributing their genes to the Persian leopard population. 
Accordingly, during Iran-Russia exchange program in 2009, it was widely attempted to capture leopard from the wild. 

Tehran Zoo has attempted natural mating in the past, which sadly failed. I appreciate their efforts to keep up now with artificial insemination, fingers crossed for their success. If successful, Iran’s Department of Environment can also establish a sperm bank for Persian leopards, because few leopards are every year rescued from traps, whose sperm can be sampled and properly stored for future applications. 

Do you think any success in reproduction of Persian leopard by artificial insemination will raise hopes regarding the reproduction in cheetahs? Captive breeding will not help Persian leopard cubs to come back to the nature; what do you think is the advantage of artificial insemination and reproducing cubs by this method, while they are not going to return nature?

Although artificial insemination can benefit leopard conservation in Iran, as well as other countries in the Caucasus, but learning the technique is equally important. For example, Iran’s Department of Environment is now considering the technique for the much rarer Asiatic cheetah. The Department of Environment has announced that the cheetah population has decreased despite massive conservation investment, with a very tiny population now alive. Although it is globally announced that some 50 cheetahs are left in Iran, but many local conservationists cast a doubt over this number and consider it ambitiously overestimated.

Therefore, captive breeding has been agreed by Iranian conservation agencies to be placed on the table, besides the on-going conservation actions in the wild. 
Natural mating has been already tried for Asiatic cheetahs kept in captivity, which sadly failed. Now, artificial insemination is considered to be the major option for conceiving an adult female Asiatic cheetah, named Delbar. Nonetheless, the chance of pregnancy and survival of the cubs is extremely low. Any achievement of using artificial insemination to breed Persian leopards would raise hopes for Asiatic cheetahs. 

What measures have been taken to deal with canine distemper, which is pervasive among Persian leopards living in habitats, where the dogs are suffering from the disease? 

In contrary to general rumors about the prevalence of Canine Distemper Virus (CDV) among Persian leopards in Iran, there is no evidence of CDV occurrence in any leopard, nor in Iran neither in west Asia. We have found high prevalence of the CDV among local dog populations around some key leopard areas, but blood tests from leopards captured near these injected dog populations did not show any evidence of CDV in leopards. Surprisingly, these dogs are widely killed by leopards, while no sign of the CDV was seen in leopards. 

Leopard is widely popular species in the Iranian community, even losing an individual could cause a backlash in the media. Therefore, as long as proper evidence of CVD prevalence in leopards is not available, calling it as a serious threat to Persian leopard might trigger the community’s emotions to react and to create expectation from conservation agencies to deal with the problem, when there is no evidence that the problem exists. 

What measures has the government taken to deal with cases related to attack of the Persian leopard on domestic livestock and people, regarding the insurance, for instance?

Raiding domestic animals, including dog, sheep, cattle, horse and even camels, are a major problem, both for people living alongside leopard areas, as well as conservation agencies in charge of protecting the leopards. As a result, affected people occasionally commit retaliatory killing of leopards, despite extremely high monetary fine of over $6000.  

Thus, Iran’s Department of Environment established an innovative insurance scheme for leopards a few years ago, aiming at compensating all verified cases of people losses to leopards. Hundreds of animals were compensated. I am not aware if the scheme is continued, as it was originally planned for five years. Nonetheless, with the rise in financial pressure to local people and the concerns over the re-imposed U.S. sanctions against Iran, not only people but also endangered animals like Persian leopards would be certainly affected, due to shortage in resources. 

How can we deal with the negative bottleneck effects which will hamper genetic diversity among leopards?

When the population of a species decreases drastically, there is a danger of inbreeding and consequently genetic drift which could hamper the long-term survival. Currently, there is no evidence of decreased genetic diversity in Persian leopards; conversely moderate genetic diversity is still seen in Persian leopards. Thanks to commitments and dedications of Iran government as well as civil society to leopard conservation, scholars perceive that at there are least 500 Persian leopards in Iran. Although relieving for conservationists in terms of number, but it reminds us that keeping up the good on-going conservation work will be crucial to avoid genetic problems in future.

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