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Kenya's decision to sell wildlife to Thailand has caused a predictable outcry. The government made noises about promoting the country's tourist industry. Everyone else said it was well, unethical and a threat to Kenya's tourism and wildlife.
These arguments miss a critical point: Kenya should be working with its neighbours to use the region's wildlife resources to become world leaders in animal biotechnology. This will contribute to a wide range of fields such as agriculture, human and animal health, industry and environmental management.
While the region lags behind in this field, other countries are using its resources to push forward this important field. It is notable that the country has national research institutes for almost all areas of economic endeavour except wildlife, the country's most strategic resource.
Wildlife has become the foundation on which major advances in genetics are founded and Kenya could benefit more by forging long-term research partnerships in this field.
ADVANCES IN genetics are going to significantly alter the future of tourism. Many endangered African species are being cloned around the world. For example, the US-based Audubon Centre for Research of Endangered Species has produced wildcat (Felis libyca) kittens by cross-breeding cloned adults. This is the first time that clones of a wild species have bred and the techniques can now be extended to other species.
Reproductive cloning remains a controversial issue and is viewed with suspicion among conservationists. However, international research groups such as the Centre for Reproduction of Endangered Species in San Diego are setting up banks for cell lines and frozen tissue for future use in supporting declining populations.
Countries such as Kenya that are home to many of the endangered species should be at the forefront of such conservation programmes. Furthermore, seeking to be a leader in such programmes would enable the country to acquire know-how that could also be applied in other fields.
EVEN MORE daring is a proposal by a group of US researchers to repopulate North America with animals such as lions, cheetahs, elephants and camels. Similar animals such as the American cheetah, the pronghorn and the Camelops, roamed the American southwest and their disappearance has left a gaping hole in the ecosystem.
The researchers argue this initiative will help protect endangered African animals while creating jobs in North America. These may not be animals relocated from Africa but possibly scientifically selected for the North American ecological conditions.
THESE EXAMPLES suggest that it is not natural endowment in wildlife that matters, but the level of a country's scientific and technical knowledge of animal genetics and ecology.
More significantly, the country could be the home of the world's premier wildlife research institution. The issue is not the lack of scientific capacity. Kenya and its neighbours are well-endowed in wildlife-related scientific capacity. But their effectiveness is hampered by the lack of a supportive policy environment and proper institutional structures.
The government working through the East African Community needs to commit itself to becoming a world leader in wildlife research, especially the associated animal biotechnology. Investing in animal biotechnology and related ecological sciences is the surest way to add enduring value to wildlife resources.
This is a rapidly advancing field that requires systematic technical advice on the latest scientific discoveries and opportunities for their application. East Africa's presidents will therefore need to create science advisory mechanisms that enable them to make informed decisions.
Such a policy commitment would need to be based on a detailed understanding of the region's research capacity. A serious audit of regional capacity in this area is needed. Much of the expertise needed to realise this goal is locked away in international and national research institutes as well as universities.
Existing institutions are not guided by any focused programmes of work and as a result spend much of their time competing for limited financial resources. A strategic programme of work seeking to assert global leadership in wildlife research would help provide incentives for collaboration.
THE CHALLENGE will be to create a world class facility that will combine research, education and conservation. In other words, it will bring together functions that are now carried out in separate institutions.
But unlike existing institutions, the focus would be to use the region's wildlife resources as a basis for moving to the frontiers of biotechnology research. The knowledge created in such an institution would not only be relevant for wildlife management, but would also contribute to other fields such as drug discovery and livestock improvement.
The current debate on the decision to sell wildlife to Thailand is therefore not as important as starting to think how to leap ahead using modern science. Only those who invest in scientific and technical research institutions will inherit the Earth.
Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard University and co-chair of the African Union's High-Level Panel on Modern Biotechnology. He is also a former executive secretary of the United Nations Convention on Biology.