Genetic diversity in nine African buffalo (Syncerus caffer) populations throughout Africa was analysed with 14 microsatellites to study the effects of rinderpest epidemics and habitat fragmentation during the 20th century. A gradient of declining expected heterozygosity was observed among populations in Save Valley Conservancy (Zimbabwe), and northern and southern Kruger National Park (South Africa). This was explained by a high mortality in northern Kruger National Park during the rinderpest pandemic at the end of the 19th century followed by recolonization from neighbouring populations, resulting in intermediate heterozygosity levels in northern Kruger National Park. In other populations expected heterozygosity was very high, indicating that rinderpest and recent habitat fragmentation had a limited effect on genetic diversity. From expected heterozygosity, estimates of long-term effective population size were derived. Migration rates among populations in eastern and southern Africa were very high, as shown by a weak isolation by distance and significant correlation in allele frequencies between populations. However, there were indications that dry habitats could limit migration. Genetic distances within buffalo in central Africa were relatively large, supporting their status as distinct subspecies. Finally, it was observed that the higher polymorphic microsatellites were less sensitive at detecting isolation by distance and differences in Ne, which may be a result of the high mutation pressure at these loci.
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