Ownership squabbles ‘hindering’ conservation

Red Maasai sheep Copyright: ILRI

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Scientists warn that continued debates over the ownership of animal genetic resources are delaying conservation of key breeds in developing countries.

At a conference on animal genetic resources in Interlaken, Switzerland this week (3–7 September), researchers said ongoing debates have meant that developing countries have not built critical genetic reservoirs of certain species, fearing that by sharing, they will lose specific breeds to their neighbours.

According to Carlos Sere, director general of the International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), this fear has delayed vital conservation efforts.

"We are concerned that the talks will take too long and by the time they are concluded, we will have lost many breeds," he told SciDev.Net.

Sere said conservation of unique breeds should be going on in parallel to the debate over ownership of genetic materials.

He added that countries that have animals of similar genetic origin should organise joint programmes to conserve these resources.

"It has always been hard to determine who owns a specific animal breed, especially in Africa. Most animals are owned by communities that are known to move freely across borders, and it becomes difficult for a country to claim ownership," he said.

Kenya and Tanzania have one such ownership dilemma, over the Maasai red sheep, reared by the Maasai community on the border of the two countries.

Ownership of livestock genetic material has also been a controversial issue in the international arena, with developing countries accusing developed countries of biopiracy.

Ed Rege, a researcher at ILRI, said biopiracy is bound to persist if local researchers do not know about the quality of genetic resources in their region. ILRI has been training local scientists on the genetics of local breeds, and has also proposed a programme to educate farmers on the diversity of their herds.

Researchers at the conference also supported using genebanks and a combination of advanced genomics and geographic mapping techniques to determine suitability of different breeds to different environments.