Previous reports have suggested that Asiatic lions and tigers are highly inbred and exhibit very low levels of genetic variation. Our analyses on these species have shown much higher degrees of polymorphism than reported. Randomly amplified polymorphic DNA (RAPD) analysis of 38 Asiatic lions, which exist as a single population in the Gir Forest Sanctuary in India, shows an average heterozygosity of 25.82% with four primers. Sperm motility studies by our colleagues corroborate this data. In Indian tigers, microsatellite analysis of five CA repeat loci and multilocus fingerprinting using Bkm 2(8) probe on a population of 22 individuals revealed a heterozygosity of 22.65%. Microsatellite analysis at loci Fca 77 and Fca 126 revealed polymorphism amongst the Asiatic X African lion hybrids, which has enabled us to use these as markers to discriminate the pure Asiatic lions from the hybrids. A similar analysis was used to identify hybrids of Indian and Siberian tigers through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) amplification of hair samples. To ascertain the variation which existed before the population bottleneck at the turn of the present century, microsatellite analysis was performed on 50- to 125-year-old skin samples from museum specimens. Our results show similar levels of genetic variability as in the present population (21.01%). This suggests that low genetic variability may be the characteristic feature of these species and not the result of intensive inbreeding. DNA fingerprinting studies of Asiatic lions and tigers have helped in identifying individuals with high genetic variability which can be used for conservation breeding programs.
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