While conservation practitioners often call for quick and accurate solutions, building the underlying scientific foundation often falls short on a speedy deliverance. In many ways, this project was no different. We knew exactly what our end goals where, yet it was a long and winding road to bridge the gap between basic genomic science and applied conservation action.
Grasp all, lose all?
With this project, we wanted to create a genomic ‘One Plan Approach’ that would tie together conservation efforts in and outside the species range of the endangered chimpanzee. However, embarking on such an undertaking comes with a risk of drowning in sample collection, data mining, and scientific scrutiny while running out of time to save a threatened species.
With an offset in a rich resource of published whole genome data, we could identify the most informative DNA markers in the chimpanzee genome and follow a sequencing protocol that only targets those sites to make it a time and cost-effective approach. Two immensely important factors in conservation.
With this type of tailored data, we had the framework to reach two of our most important goals. One, to provide accurate genomic guidance of the breeding populations outside the range, and two, to identify the geographical origin of chimpanzees in the illegal wildlife trade. As harvesting of chimpanzees from the wild has increased markedly in recent years, the latter was, especially a pressing matter. Rising local and global demands for bushmeat and exotic pets have made the illegal trade one of the major threats that currently pushes chimpanzees and other great apes towards extinction.
Winding roads paved with good intentions.
I have lost count on how many papers I have read (own included) with a concluding statement on how the presented results will have implications for conservation. Yet, only a fraction makes it from the journal pages to any on-ground practice. And even if they do, it is rarely at the pace requested from practitioners. In our case, we wanted to ensure that every single result published would have direct application, while the general framework would serve as a blueprint to conservation genomic projects beyond chimpanzees. Fortunately, a growing body of genomic data from an expanding list of taxa will provide the needed foundation to which our framework should readily apply.
At the time of writing, SARS-CoV-2 pandemic has put the world on lockdown. The cause of a projected human death count in the millions, likely traces back to wildlife consumptions and has placed renewed pressure on a permanent ban on the trade in exotic animals. Such efforts require novel and innovative approaches. Hopefully, the road that we have paved, will serve as a roadbook to future conservation efforts where building the scientific background and implementing the practical application can act at a similar pace.
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