With only 40 Marsican brown bears left in Italy, the species is on the brink of extinction. One scientist has a controversial plan to prevent its extinction - to clone it. And, he doesn't want to stop there.
In the beech forests of central Italy's Abruzzo National Park, roughly 40 native Marsican brown bears are struggling against the threat of extinction.
Since the 1980s, half of the Marsican brown bear population here has been lost to urban expansion. The bears have been poached, poisoned by traps set for other animals, or killed in traffic accidents. And, while there have been attempts to revive its population using EU funding and various protective strategies, Marsican bear numbers continue to decline.
Pasqualino Loi, Professor of Biomedicine at the University of Teramo in Italy, believes that in order to save the Marsican brown bear, it should be cloned.
"The Marsican bear is dying out and at least this way there will be bears available for mating in the habitat at all," Loi told DW.
Loi led Europe's last cloning experiment with an endangered animal back in 2001, which saw a Mouflon wild sheep cloned. The animal died within six months of birth. He's already planning the preliminary in-vitro phase of cloning the Marsican bear, using cell samples from a dead bear recently found on an Italian highway.
Using a dog to get a bear
With the same technique used to clone Dolly the sheep in 1996, the process involves producing and then transplanting a somatic cell nucleus into an enucleated ovary of a genetically similar surrogate animal.
"We need a foster mother like a large dog such as a Schnauzer or St Bernard, dogs which are genetic cousins of the bear," explains Loi.
If successful, Loi suggests the dog could deliver up to six to eight cloned baby bears.
But even if the Marsican brown bear could be successfully cloned, there's the still the issue of genetic variability. When an animal's population in the wild becomes too small, it's genetic diversity decreases beyond the point of recovery.
And with only a few Marsican bears left, their gene pool is already limited. Given that the female bear only breeds every three to four years, some say the new cloning idea doesn't aid the bear's chances of survival much either.
But, irrespective of its low genetic variability, Loi insists the Marsican brown bear would have a higher chance of survival, if it were cloned.
"The cloned population would be stronger simply because a disease can't kill all of them. Isn't it better to have 4000 bears with less genetic variability than no bears at all?" Loi asks.
Other animals also threatened
The Marsican brown bear is not alone in its struggle to survive. In Europe, 42% of mammals, 15% of birds and 52% of freshwater fish are under threat of extinction. These species are threatened largely as a result of the loss of their habitat or from having to share their environment with humans. Close to 1000 plant species are at serious risk or on the verge of disappearing altogether.
But, Alberto Arroyo-Schnell, European biodiversity policy adviser at the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), says the huge costs needed to clone an endangered animal cannot be justified. Not only is cloning ethically contentious and extremely expensive, current cloning techniques are hardly effective, with an average success rate of less than five percent. And for wild animals, the success rate is even lower at less than one percent.
"We can be sure that conservation of habitats will work but we can't be sure that cloning will work. If we use these resources for real conservation methods, we probably wouldn't have to think about cloning," he says.
The low and unpredictable efficiency of current cloning techniques is something Professor Loi concedes himself. “We're not ready. In ten years time, yes. The best thing, for now, is to establish biobanks and then to work on the basic science in order to improve cloning,” he says.
Biobanks are created by taking the cells from individual animals, which are then freeze-dried to be stored for future use.
For over a decade, Loi has been arguing the case for collecting cell samples from endangered species before their numbers drop too low, so as to ensure the samples are of a broad genetic variability. In the US and Brazil, projects to do this have already begun.
EU legislation lacking
Cloning endangered animals for their own protection certainly isn't in the official plans of the European Union at the moment, says Joseph Hennon, European Commission spokesperson for Environment.
"The objective of the EU is to halt and reverse the loss of biodiversity by 2020,' he said. "Full implementation of EU legislation will make it unnecessary to clone species of the EU as it will prevent these species disappearing in the wild."
Under its Natura 2000 policy, the EU has established a network of protected ecological areas to prevent the extinction of threatened species and their habitats. And just last year, it adopted the Biodiversity Strategy 2020 to restore biodiversity and ecosystems.
Since there are no provisions for cloning within the EU Birds and Habitats Directives which oversee conservation in the bloc, cloning for conservation is left to individual EU member states to decide.
In fact, if the in-vitro phase proves successful for Pasqualino Loi and his team, he'll be seeking permission from the Italian Minister of Environment soon, to clone the Marsican brown bear using surrogate dogs in the not-too-distant future.