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Can small wildlife conservancies maintain genetically stable populations of large mammals? Evidence for increased genetic drift in geographically restricted populations of Cape buffalo in East Africa

Authors

  • R. HELLER,

    1. Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
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  • J. B. A. OKELLO,

    1. Molecular Biology Laboratory, Makerere University Institute of Environment and Natural Resources, PO Box 7298, Kampala, Uganda
    2. McMaster Ancient DNA Centre, Department of Anthropology, McMaster University, 1280 Main St. West, Hamilton, ON L8S 4L9, Canada
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  • H. SIEGISMUND

    1. Department of Biology, University of Copenhagen, Universitetsparken 15, DK-2100 Copenhagen Ø, Denmark
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Rasmus Heller, Fax: (+45) 35321300; E-mail: rheller@bio.ku.dk

Abstract

The Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer caffer) is one of the dominant and most widespread herbivores in sub-Saharan Africa. High levels of genetic diversity and exceptionally low levels of population differentiation have been found in the Cape buffalo compared to other African savannah ungulates. Patterns of genetic variation reveal large effective population sizes and indicate that Cape buffalos have historically been interbreeding across considerable distances. Throughout much of its range, the Cape buffalo is now largely confined to protected areas due to habitat fragmentation and increasing human population densities, possibly resulting in genetic erosion. Ten buffalo populations in Kenya and Uganda were examined using seventeen microsatellite markers to assess the regional genetic structure and the effect of protected area size on measures of genetic diversity. Two nested levels of genetic structure were identified: a higher level partitioning populations into two clusters separated by the Victoria Nile and a lower level distinguishing seven genetic clusters, each defined by one or two study populations. Although relatively small geographic distances separate most of the study populations, the level of genetic differentiation found here is comparable to that among pan-African populations. Overall, correlations between conservancy area and indices of genetic diversity suggest buffalo populations inhabiting small parks are showing signs of genetic erosion, stressing the need for more active management of such populations. Our findings raise concerns about the future of other African savannah ungulates with lower population sizes and inferior dispersal capabilities compared with the buffalo.

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