Habitat fragmentation and genetic diversity in natural populations of the Bornean elephant: Implications for conservation

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Abstract

The Bornean elephant population in Sabah, with only 2000 individuals, is currently mainly restricted to a limited number of forest reserves. The main threats to the species' survival are population fragmentation and isolation of the existing herds. To support and help monitor future conservation and management measures, we assessed the genetic diversity and population structure of Bornean elephants using mitochondrial DNA, microsatellites and single nucleotide polymorphisms. Our results confirmed a previously reported lack of mitochondrial control region diversity, characterized by a single widespread haplotype. However, we found low but significant degree of genetic differentiation among populations and marked variation in genetic diversity with the other two types of markers among Bornean elephants. Microsatellite data showed that Bornean elephants from the Lower Kinabatangan and North Kinabatangan ranges are differentiated and perhaps isolated from the main elephant populations located in the Central Forest and Tabin Wildlife Reserve. The pairwise FST values between these sites ranged from 0.08 to 0.14 (p < 0.001). Data from these markers also indicate that the Bornean elephant populations from Lower Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary and North Kinabatangan (Deramakot Forest Reserve) possess higher levels of genetic variation compared to the elephant populations from other areas. Our results suggest that (i) Bornean elephants probably derive from a very small female population, (ii) they rarely disperse across current human-dominated landscapes that separate forest fragments, and (iii) forest fragments are predominantly comprised of populations that are already undergoing genetic drift. To maintain the current levels of genetic diversity in fragmented habitats, conservation of the Bornean elephants should aim at securing connectivity between spatially distinct populations.

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Goossens, B., Sharma, R., Othman, N., Kun-Rodrigues, C., Sakong, R., Ancrenaz, M., … Chikhi, L. (2016). Habitat fragmentation and genetic diversity in natural populations of the Bornean elephant: Implications for conservation. Biological Conservation, 196, 80–92. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biocon.2016.02.008

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