Wildlife Genetics Division (WGD)
Aaranyak, in its endeavour to incorporate advanced approaches in wildlife sciences and conservation, braved a helical leap in the year 2008 by launching Wildlife Genetics Division (WGD) in it domain. The major thrust areas of WGD include:
- Development and maintenance of an in-house molecular biology laboratory and undertake conservation genetic research work to provide answers to questions pertaining to pressing wildlife population management need.
- Development of reference genetic database of the rich biodiversity of northeast India and standardize DNA-based techniques for population monitoring as well as forensic identification.
- Development of manpower resources in northeast India for promoting conservation genetic research and build capacity of relevant stakeholders in efficient use of genetic technology in wildlife management and wildlife crime investigations.
Wildlife Genetics Laboratory (WGL):
At the core of WGD’s functioning, Aaranyak has established Wildlife Genetics Laboratory in 2008, a state of the art molecular biology facility to undertake conservation genetic research as well as wildlife forensic DNA analysis for the states of Northeast India.
Apart from its work in India, WGL has been offering consultancy and technical support to conservation genetic projects undertaken internationally, including countries like Indonesia and Bhutan.
Facilities & Expertise:
1. Laboratory Facilities: Facility available for sample cryopreservation and general storage, DNA extraction from various types of biological samples of wildlife origin, various types of Thermal Cycler machines to use PCR technology in generating genetic data, electrophoresis and solvent handling etc.
2. Genetic Marker Development: Development and standardization of various types of genetic markers for species identification, individual identity and relatedness analysis, gender identification etc., used in population genetic research and forensic investigations.
3. Non-invasive Genetics: WGL specializes in using various non-invasive modes of genetic sampling of wildlife species, i.e., samples which provide DNA from the target animal without capturing or handling. Such samples include faeces, hair, feather, urine, saliva, egg-shell, shed-off skin etc. Such sampling techniques have been effectively used by WGL for species presence surveys as well as genetic monitoring of wildlife populations. WGL has necessary physical separation of facilities and equipment for undertaking DNA analysis of low quality DNA sources such as non-invasive samples and forensic samples from that of high quality DNA samples such as blood, fresh tissue etc.
4. Genetic Population Monitoring: WGL can undertake multilocus microsatellite genotyping of mammalian and avian species for individual identification and relatedness studies. Such technology, coupled with non-invasive sampling is being used for monitoring wildlife populations and estimating population size through genetic capture-recapture methodologies.
5. Population Genetic Data Analysis: WGL has facility and expertise for analysis of genetic data such as genetic diversity, population genetic structure and gene flow among populations, determining geographic origin of forensic samples and determining migrants based on available genetic databases through use of assignment tests, molecular phylogeny and historical biogeography etc.
6. Wildlife DNA Forensics: Inhouse expertise and experience in undertaking crime scene sampling and DNA investigation of wildlife cases for species identification, individual matching of samples with scene of crime, DNA parentage analysis, source of origin etc.
Major Research Programmes of WGD:
1. Landscape Genetic Approach to Asian Elephant Population Monitoring in Northeast India:
WGD, in collaboration with Elephant Research & Conservation Division of Aaranyak, as initiated a long term project on using landscape genetic tools to undertake population genetic mapping of source populations and migration routes of elephants (Elephas maximus) in Northeast India. The project will use non-invasive genetic analysis to evaluate the efficacy of the identified corridors in facilitating demographic and genetic exchange of elephants in the landscape. The project work has been initiated from 2022 onwards and ecological and genetic data required for the study are currently being generated.
2. Population monitoring of Asian Rhino Species:
WGD has pioneered population genetic monitoring of greater one-horned rhinos (Rhinoceros unicorns) in India since 2009, through assessment of contemporary levels and spatial distribution of genetic diversity in the rhino bearing protected areas of Assam and West Bengal. The laboratory also optimized and successful applied of methodology for genetic population estimation of rhinos using dung as a source of DNA.
During 2012 to 2014, 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 (Dicerorhinussumatrensis) 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.
3. Population monitoring of tiger and other carnivores in Eastern India:
In the year 2009, the laboratory worked in Orang National Park of Assam to standardise methodology for tiger population estimation employing genetic capture-recapture using a maximum likelihood based single session sampling design. Since then, the laboratory is working 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 use non-invasive genetic monitoring of tiger populations.
Ecology of Tigers in North Bengal–During 2018-19, WGL undertook 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 for West Bengal Forest and Biodiversity Conservation Project (WBFBCP), Govt. of West Bengal. The project included 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 capture recapture.
Ecology of Leopards in North Bengal–The project, implemented during 2018-2021 and commissioned by West Bengal Forest and Biodiversity Conservation Project (WBFBCP), Govt. of West Bengal. Primarily focussed on assessment of leopard (Panthera pardus)population status in North Bengal, assessment of leopard distribution, prey preferences 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 followed a grid based survey of leopard presence through questionnaire, sign survey and non-invasive genetic sampling as well as assessment of human leopard conflict intensities through questionnaire and secondary information collection.
Monitoring distribution of small carnivore species – Besides large carnivores such as tiger and leopard, non-invasive genetic sampling based surveys for species presence and distribution in several remote areas of Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya and Mizoram.
4. Genetic Monitoring 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 during 2014-2019. Samples used in this study were collected by RSPN Biologists during nest monitoring of this species in some of the known localities within Bhutan. The study has led to assessment of mitochondrial genetic diversity of the species in Bhutan, assessing phylogenetic status and looking at historical demography of the species, providing answers to some of the key questions pertaining to conservation strategy development.
Services Offered by WGD:
1. Wildlife Forensic DNA Analysis:
WGL has been offering support to various State Forest Departments of Northeast India in genetic monitoring of several threatened species. Office of the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Govt. of Assam as recognized WGL 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. Since 2014, WGL has offered crucial DNA analysis service to more than 80 wildlife crime cases in the state of Assam.Since 2022, WGL has also started offering wildlife forensic DNA analysis service to Arunachal Pradesh Forest Department.
The laboratory offers the following type of DNA forensic investigation service:
- Collection of sample from the scene of wildlife crime
- Identification of wildlife species from morphologically indistinguishable biological material.
- Identification of individuals and matching sample identities through DNA fingerprinting for forensic investigation.
- DNA parentage analysis service for mother-calf elephant pair in captivity, required at the time of registration of a calf to confirm true biological mother for the calf. This helps avoiding any possible chance of illegal trade or capture of elephant calf from the wild.
- Identification of exotic pets in private possession in the state of Assam through DNA barcoding.
2. Genetic sampling and repository building:
WGL offers crucial support to the forest department in genetic sampling of wildlife stockpile in government repositories as well as field sampling required for wildlife monitoring and investigative purposes. In 2021, WGL provided crucial support to Assam Forest Department in genetic sampling of more than 2500 rhino horns in government repository prior to destruction of the same through burning.
Contributions to Capacity Building and Manpower Development:
1. Development of trained manpower in the laboratory and in the field
Since its inception, WGD has been instrumental in developing trained manpower resources in the field of conservation genetics in northeast India. Several Researchers, Interns and volunteers have gained experience in the field of genetic and ecological research through WGD in past 15 years, which have led to production of manpower as well as fulfilment of academic degrees such as Ph.D., M.Phil, Master’s dissertations etc.
2. Training to forest department field staff
WGL has continuously been providing trainings to forest staff of various protected areas in eastern India on effective use of genetic technology in wildlife monitoring as well as crime investigations, through proper field collection and preservation of genetic samples.The laboratory has also organized training programs for field officers of the forest departments on population size estimation of Asian elephants and Royal Bengal tiger using genetic capture-recapture based sampling.
3. Training courses and educational seminars
WGD organizes training courses on various topics such as basics of molecular tools in conservation genetics, molecular phylogenetics, genetic population monitoring etc. to students and researchers, where participants from throughout India have participated.
- During 2018-2021 WGD carried out extensive study on the Leopard population of North districts of state of West Bengal involving eight protected areas of the region. The study provided first ever genetic estimation of leopard population in the major protected areas of North Bengal and an insight into its distribution pattern, feeding habits as well as human-leopard conflict situation in the region. This helped in designing a leopard management plan for the landscape.
- During 2018-19, WGL undertook 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.
- In the year 2015, WGD carried out genetic assessment of greater one-horned rhino population of India. The study provided insight into the contemporary levels of genetic diversity of the species for the first time across all the wild extant populations of India and showed presence of significant levels of genetic population structure among rhino populations of Assam and West Bengal. The study also helped in creating genetic database of rhino populations of India which critical for future forensic investigations.
- In 2014 WGD standardised protocol for protocols for genetic individual identification of Asian elephant, thereby opening possibilities of undertaking genetic population monitoring studies in the region.
- 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 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 undertook genetic population monitoring of tiger population in Pakke Tiger Reserve of Arunachal Pradesh. Field sampling for carnivore scats and genetic analysis in WGL confirmed existence of 8 individual tigers, with 3 females and 5 males in the area.
- In the year 2013, WGD carried out study to assess the distribution of large and small carnivore species present in the Garo Hills, Meghalaya using noninvasive genetic tools.
- 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 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.
- 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 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 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 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, 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 from WGD.
- 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 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.
Collaboration and Support:
- National Tiger Conservation Authority, Govt. of India
- Assam Forest Department
- West Bengal Forest Department
- National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore
- Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun
- WWF, India
- International Rhino Foundation
- Asian Rhino Project, Australia
- US Fish and Wildlife Services
- International Foundation for Science
- Mohammad Bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund
- Taiwan Forestry Bureau
- Global Wildlife Conservation
- Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong
- The Royal Society for Protection of Nature, Bhutan
- Department of Forests and Park Services, Bhutan
- Eijkmen Institute for Molecular Biology, Indonesia
Scientist E & Head, WGD