Aaranyak, in its attempt to find newer ways to wildlife research and conservation in order to yield more reliable answers to the pressing ecological questions, finally braved a helical leap in January 2008 by launching a new division in its domain called Wildlife Genetics Division (WGD), with an establishment of Wildlife Genetics Laboratory (WGL). The laboratory is first of its kind in the region and first at the NGO level in the country.
Since the time of its inception, the major objectives of the division are to:
- Build up a reference genetic database of the rich biodiversity of Northeast India,
- Standardize DNA based techniques for the identification of species, gender and individuals from various types of biological samples of wildlife origin
- Undertake priority population genetic research to answer pressing wildlife management questions.
WGD has been offering support to various State Forest Departments of Northeast India in genetic monitoring of threatened mammalian species. Office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Govt. of Assam as recognized Wildlife Genetics Laboratory as a facility for wildlife genetic and forensic DNA analysis in the state of Assam, vide letter no. WL/FG/FORENSIC/2014 dated 28 April 2014. Apart from its work in India, WGD has been offering consultancy and technical support to conservation genetic projects undertaken internationally, including countries like Indonesia and Bhutan.
Facilities at Wildlife Genetics Laboratory (WGL)
As the core of WGD’s functioning, Aaranyak has established a Wildlife Genetics Laboratory (WGL) at Guwahati in order to undertake DNA based work on various wildlife species. As part of a three-year plan of establishing a high-throughput laboratory, we have already procured all that is required to start DNA based work. At present, we have following facilities in the laboratory:
- DNA extraction facility for low quality and trace amounts of biological samples
- Electrophoresis and general solvent handling facility
- Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) facility
- Population genetic data analysis facility
Apart from this, WGL has back-up system for uninterrupted power supply to thermal cycler, electrophoresis, and freezers etc.
In-house Expertise at Wildlife Genetics Laboratory
- DNA extraction from a variety of samples of wildlife origin, e.g., blood, tissue, hair, feces, feather etc. and handling and processing of forensic samples for DNA analysis.
- Development of various types of genetic markers for population genetic research and forensic investigations.
- Microsatellite genotyping of mammalian and avian species for individual identification and relatedness studies.
- DNA marker based identification of species from morphologically indistinguishable biological material of wildlife origin, individuals identification using microsatellite genotyping, determination of paternity and kinship, identification of gender using genetic markers etc.
- Population genetic analysis including study of genetic diversity, population genetic differentiation and gene flow among populations, determining geographic origin of forensic samples and determining migrants based on available genetic databases through using assignment tests, phylogeny and historical biogeography etc.
- Genetic capture-recapture based population estimation of various species in the wild.
Research Work by WGD
Ecology of Tigers in North Bengal
The project includes assessment of tiger population in the Protected Areas network of North Bengal and study ecological aspects such as population dynamics, prey-predator relationships, territoriality and home range related aspects and finally to develop a tiger conservation plan for the landscape. The project includes mapping of tiger presence and distribution in the PA network of North Bengal using sign survey and genetic sampling based species identification of genuine tiger samples and subsequent population estimation using genetic as well as photographic capture recapture.
Ecology of Leopards in North Bengal
The project primarily focusses on assessment of leopard population status in North Bengal, assessment of leopard distribution, prey preferences and territorial behavior and most importantly to investigate the driving factors of human leopard conflict, in order to develop a leopard management plan for the landscape. The project follows a grid based survey of leopard presence through questionnaire, sign survey and genetic sampling as well as assessment of human leopard conflict intensities through questionnaire and secondary information collection.
Population monitoring of Greater one-horned rhino in India
WGD has been conducting population genetic monitoring of greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicorns) in India for past five years, through assessment of contemporary levels and spatial distribution of genetic diversity in the rhino bearing protected areas of Assam and West Bengal. Current work in this area includes optimization of methodology for genetic capture-recapture based population estimation in Jaldapara National Park, West Bengal and population genetic assessment of rhino population in Dudhwa National Park, Uttar Pradesh.
Population Genetic monitoring of Javan and Sumatran Rhinos In Indonesia
WGD worked jointly with Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology, Jakarta, IRF and WWF to monitor population status of Critically Endangered Javan (Rhinoceros sondaicus) and Sumatran rhinos (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis) in Indonesia. WGD’s role in this work is to oversee the methodological aspects of genetic analysis and to provide technical guidance to the Researchers working in the laboratory of Eijkman Institute at Jakarta. This project aims at determining population size of these species in situ through genetic capture-recapture analysis and to determine the contemporary levels of genetic diversity, extent of inbreeding and other founder effects in the last remaining populations of these species for formulating sound management recommendations.
Population monitoring of tiger and other carnivores in Northeast India
WGD is working for past 6 years on tiger (Panthera tigris) population monitoring in various Tiger Reserves and other protected areas of Eastern India. So far, the laboratory has worked in Buxa Tiger Reserve of West Bengal, Palamau Tiger Reserve of Jharkhand, Dampa Tiger Reserve of Mizoram, Namdapha and Pakke Tiger Reserve of Arunachal Pradesh and Manas Tiger Reserve of Assam to determine the minimum number of tigers present in these areas. In addition, the laboratory has worked in Orang National Park in Assam to standardise methodology for tiger population estimation using genetic capture-recapture using a maximum likelihood based single session sampling design.
Evaluation of genetic diversity of White-bellied Heron in Bhutan
WGD has collaborated with Royal Society for Protection of Nature (RSPN), Bhutan to work on Critically Endangered White-bellied Heron (Ardea insignis) population in Bhutan. Work has been initiated on preliminary assessment of mitochondrial genetic diversity of the species from various nesting colonies in Bhutan. Samples used in this study were collected by RSPN Biologists during nest monitoring of this species in some of the known localities within Bhutan.
Genetic monitoring of Snow Leopard in Wangchuck Centennial Park, Bhutan
WGD is offering support to Wangchuck Centennial Park, Bhutan in genetic analysis of snow leopard (Uncia uncia) faecal samples, in order to estimate minimum number of individual present in the area. This is the largest National Park of Bhutan, bordering Tibet to the North and with an altitudinal range of 2,500 metres to 5,100 metres. It is worth mentioning that the snow leopard faecal samples collected by the Park authority comes from an high altitudinal range of 3,100 metres to 4,700 metres.
Molecular phylogenetics of Himalayan birds
WGD worked as a collaborator in a joint project undertaken by Prof. Trevor Price of Department of Ecology and Evolution, University of Chicago, USA and Wildlife Institute of India, on the analysis of regional variation in bird species diversity along the Himalayas.
Chronology of Achievements
- In the year 2009, WGL successfully developed protocols for genetic individual identification of Greater One-horned Rhinos from dung samples, thereby opening greater possibilities of undertaking genetic population monitoring of this species in its natural habitat.
- In the year 2009, WGL carried out genetic capture-recapture based population estimation of tigers in Orang National Park, which for the first time, successfully demonstrated the use of single-session sampling based capture-recapture model in population estimation of tigers. Such single session sampling based capture-recapture population estimation is useful in population monitoring in low density protected areas, especially with physically challenging terrains, where repeat sampling is extremely difficult.
- In the year 2010, WGL carried out tiger genetic population estimation in Buxa Tiger Reserve, West Bengal, identifying 15 tigers in the area. This became the first genetic based population monitoring work to be mentioned in the status report of tigers in India in the year 2010.
- In the year 2011, WGD started working with various international and local organizations in Indonesia such as YABI, Eijkman Institute for Molecular Biology, WWF and IRF to genetically monitor population status of Critically Endangered Javan and Sumatran rhinos in the country. This is first ever detailed study on genetic population monitoring of these two rare mammals being carried out under the supervision of genetic expert Mr. Udayan Borthakur from WGD.
- In the year 2011, WGL confirmed the presence of tigers in Namdapha Tiger Reserve, Arunachal Pradesh, through genetic analysis of faecal samples collected by the Forest Department. This was the first confirmation of tigers remaining in the Tiger Reserve, after a decade long absence of scientific evidence. In the year 2012, WGL further confirmed presence of two individual tigers in Namdapha through genetic analysis of faecal samples.
- In the year 2011, WGL contributed to tiger population monitoring in Palamau Tiger Reserve, Jharkhand, through genetic analysis based identification of six individual tigers from faecal samples collected by Palamau Forest Department.
- In the year 2011, WGL carried out analysis of faecal samples collected by the Field Directorate, Manas Tiger Reserve, from a part of the Reserve to confirm the presence of four tigers in the area.
- In the year 2012, WGL successfully carried out genetic census of Greater One-horned Rhinos in Gorumara National Park, West Bengal, reporting the presence of 43 individual rhinos with a sex ratio of nearly 4:1. This is first of its kind achievement for the species in the world.
- In the year 2012, WGL carried out genetic population monitoring of tigers in Dampa Tiger Reserve, Mizoram, jointly with the Field Directorate, Dampa and WWF-India. This study confirmed the presence of three tigers in the area, which nullified the uncertainty of tiger presence in Dampa due to long absence of scientific evidence.
- During 2012-13, WGL carried out extensive genetic population monitoring of tigers in Manas National Park, confirming the existence of 23 individual tigers in the area. As part of this work, a compartment wise sampling model was followed, where field staff of Manas National Park were trained and later genetic sampling were carried out by the Field Directorate, Manas Tiger Reserve.
- In the year 2014, WGD carried out genetic assessment of the Critically Endangered White-bellied Heron population in Bhutan, in collaboration with the Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Bhutan. This study generated first ever genetic information of this species and important information on the genetic diversity in the wild, population history and phylogenetic status were obtained.
- In the year 2014, WGD carried out analysis of snow leopard faecal samples from Wangchuck Centennial Park of Bhutan and confirmed the presence of minimum 5 individuals in the area.
- In the year 2014, WGD undertook genetic population monitoring of tiger population in Pakke Tiger Reserve of Arunachal Pradesh. Field sampling for carnivore scats and and genetic analysis in WGL confirmed existence of 8 individual tigers, with 3 females and 5 males in the area.
- From the year 2014 onwards, WGL has been providing wildlife DNA forensic analysis service to the Assam Forest Department in cases such as determination of parentage for captive elephant mother-calf, required at the time of registration of the newborn at captivity, determination of genuine rhino horns which are indistinguishable by morphometric methods, determination of species identity for various confiscated material from suspected poachers etc.
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