Giraffes brought to India 150 years ago from Africa may be a critically endangered species

Protocols to manage populations of exotic species are different when compared to animals that are native to the country

October 19, 2022 04:04 am | Updated 10:10 am IST - UDHAGAMANDALAM

Research genesis: A genome sequencing study of the 10 giraffes in Kolkata was the basis for analyses of giraffes in captivity.

Research genesis: A genome sequencing study of the 10 giraffes in Kolkata was the basis for analyses of giraffes in captivity. | Photo Credit: PTI

About 150 years ago, British colonialists brought batches of what they thought were a single species of the northern giraffe to India, from their other colonial possessions in Africa. These now comprise a captive population of 29 individuals of northern giraffes across the country. A recent genealogical study of the largest captive herd in India at the Alipore Zoological Garden in Kolkata has confirmed that the individuals in this facility, at least, are most likely “critically endangered” Nubian giraffes (Giraffa camelopardalis camelopardalis) or the endangered Rothschild giraffe (Giraffa camelopardalis rothschildi).

Speaking to The Hindu, R. Sanil, Associate Professor, Molecular Biology Laboratory, Government Arts College, Udhagamandalam, where dung samples of the 10 giraffes from Kolkata were analysed, said that the Nubian giraffes are believed to be among three sub-species of the northern giraffe, according to a whole genome sequencing study conducted in 2021. “It was with this latest study in mind that an analysis of the giraffes in captivity in India was started,” Mr. Sanil said.

He pointed out that there were giraffes in captivity in Mysuru, Chennai, Patna, Guwahati, and Hyderabad, and that it was imperative to identify which species of giraffe each of the facilities in India have in their possession.

A genetic distance analysis of the giraffes in Alipore showed that they were most closely related to Nubian and Rothschild giraffes. There’s still debate among scientists on whether the Nubian and Rothschild giraffes are separate sub-species.

“As both the Nubian and Rothschild giraffes are listed as ‘critically endangered’ and ‘endangered’ by the IUCN [respectively], we think it’s imperative that the Central Zoo Authority conducts further studies of the giraffes in captivity so that the species are not interbred with each other and the giraffes’ germplasm is preserved,” Mr. Sanil added.

Sulekha J. Backer, research scholar and one of the lead authors of the paper titled ‘Captive giraffes in Alipore Zoological Garden, Kolkata are Nubian!’ published as a short note in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society said “stud-books” maintained in zoos across India had little to no information on where the giraffes brought to India from Africa had been captured, so the only way to identify the species would be through a mitochondrial gene study. She said that as giraffes are an exotic species that was imported into India, protocols to manage the populations were different when compared to animals that are native to the country.

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