Scientists in Iran have successfully cloned an Esfahan mouflon, a rare wild sheep that is nearly extinct from poaching. The little mouflon, named Maral, has been alive for over 14 days at Royan farm and holds a long-shot promise of rejuvenating the species.
The success could open up new strategies for conservationists trying to bring species back from the brink of extinction, but critics warn cloning does nothing about the fundamental problems that lead to extinction and risks the health of the specimens involved in the process.
According to the Guardian, scientists cloned the baby mouflon, named Maral (a Persian name for new babies and reindeer), at the Royan Institute in Iran.
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Royan’s head of biomedical research center, Mohammad Hossein Nasr-Esfahani, explained the project has been a long time in the making.
“We have been working on the project for around four years. Conservation of wildlife is an important concept in developing countries, and so far a few successful projects involving birth of wild animals by interspecies cloning have been achieved worldwide.”
The scientist went on to boast of the institute’s herd of cloned goats and their cloned sheep that has already lived for five years. Iran has been the Middle East’s go-to destination for biomedical research and fertility treatments. The country’s Shia clerics have given their blessing to researchers. The Royan Institute started in 1991 by specializing in IVF treatments for people with fertility problems.
By using a different species of sheep for the mouflon clone’s mother, the scientists in Iran opened up new potential for species that are far down the road to extinction (think of the northern white rhino, which only has four living members).
This story isn’t the first time conservationists have turned to clones to help restore a species. In 2009, researchers produced a clone of the extinct goat species Pyrenean ibex. According to the Telegraph, it was the first time an extinct animal was brought back to life. Researchers took skin samples from the last living member of the species in Spain in 2000, but the cloned goat was born with lung defects and died shortly after birth.
Biomedical pioneers have also gotten ahold of incredibly well-preserved Woolly Mammoth tissue from a 40,000-year-old specimen according to the Huffington Post, giving a big step forward in the effort to clone a long-extinct animal.
Despite all the excitement behind the Jurassic Park-type technology, many conservationists are not satisfied with the solution.
Penny Hawkins, head of the research animals department at RSPCA, called cloning a “very wasteful process” and likely painful for the endangered specimens.
“It’s all very well cloning endangered species but if you haven’t got the natural habitat to put them into you can argue, what’s the point doing it at all? What’s the point manipulating animals and causing suffering and causing risks to the mother animals when maybe there’s the case that the population of endangered animals still can’t be saved because their habitat has been destroyed?”
As for Maral’s next step, the researchers hope to donate it to one of Iran’s city zoos so it can receive a proper environment.
[Image: European Mouflon, Credit: Jörg Hempel/Wikimedia Commons]