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:
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:
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.
Collaboration and Support:
Scientist E & Head, WGD