Arctic animals are under pressure from many sides. In addition to the effects of climate change, pollution, the immigration of new species, increased resource exploration, traffic and, last but not least, recreational hunters are causing the numbers of most species to go down. Attempts that protect animals include breeding programs in zoos and animal gardens in addition to on-site measures. Geneticists in particular see another form of protection in the further development of cloning. A Chinese company has now successfully cloned a polar mammal for the first time: an Arctic wolf.
In June 2022, the little Arctic wolf “Maya” was born in Beijing. What would normally be just a nice little piece of news from a zoo or animal park has much greater significance, as “Maya” is the first female Arctic wolf and the first polar mammal ever to be “produced” via cloning in a laboratory. After the she-wolf survived the first 100 days in good health, the animal was presented to the public at a press conference in Beijing.
The Chinese company Sinogene Biotechnology Co. in Beijing is responsible for the clone wolf. Normally, the company clones pets such as cats, dogs and horses. But two years ago, the company agreed to a research cooperation with Harbin Polar Park to launch a project to protect the endangered Arctic wolf, Mi Jidong, the company’s director, tells the Global Times news platform. As experts in dog cloning, Sinogene was to develop an Arctic wolf, i.e., a genetic image of the donor, from the skin cells (donor cells) of a female Arctic wolf living in the Polar Park, also named “Maya,” and the egg cells of a female dog. After two years, the research team ended up producing 137 embryos, 85 of which could be implanted into seven female beagles. Of the 85, one animal remained in the end, “Maya”, which was born on June 10. Currently, the little wolf still lives with her foster mother in the laboratories of Sinogene. When she is big enough, however, “Maya” will then be taken to Harbin Polar Park, where she will be raised further, representatives of Sinogene and the polar park explain.
For Sinogene, the successful birth and raising of “Maya” is just the beginning. The aim now is to protect even more endangered animal species from extinction by means of cloning in cooperation with Chinese state-run animal parks such as the Beijing Wildlife Part. However, specific plans have not yet been discussed. For the zoo, the procedure is a welcome addition when other forms of reproduction of endangered species in zoos do not bring success. In addition, both partners want to establish a kind of gene bank for endangered species, similar to the seed banks for plants, one of which is located on Svalbard. Among other things, this is also intended to further the five-year national plan for China’s development ordered by the Chinese government.
The idea of using clones to better protect polar animals is not new. Since the first successful cloning of a mammal, the famous sheep “Dolly”, the method has often been called. The method has already been discussed for the protection of polar bears and even extinct animals such as mammoths and woolly rhinos are to be brought back to life with a modified cloning method. But the method also has many critics, who come from the various branches of science. Geneticists and zoologists, for example, warn that there is still not enough data to show any long-term health or behavioral consequences. Science ethicists also caution against viewing cloning as simply THE method for protecting endangered species. They point out that most species got to the point of being endangered in the first place because of man’s ruthless exploitation of nature, and that cloning could be used as a free pass for further exploitation. Others go a step further and ask where the line should be drawn, including with regard to human cloning. For “Maya” at least, the cloning was successful. But its future is as uncertain as that of its wild counterparts in the vastness of the Canadian Arctic.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal