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Keywords:

  • animal mating/breeding systems;
  • behaviour/social evolution;
  • conservation genetics;
  • wildlife management

Abstract

Genetic tools are increasingly valuable for understanding the behaviour, evolution, and conservation of social species. In African elephants, for instance, genetic data provide basic information on the population genetic causes and consequences of social behaviour, and how human activities alter elephants’ social and genetic structures. As such, African elephants provide a useful case study to understand the relationships between social behaviour and population genetic structure in a conservation framework. Here, we review three areas where genetic methods have made important contributions to elephant behavioural ecology and conservation: (1) understanding kin-based relationships in females and the effects of poaching on the adaptive value of elephant relationships, (2) understanding patterns of paternity in elephants and how poaching can alter these patterns, and (3) conservation genetic tools to census elusive populations, track ivory, and understand the behavioural ecology of crop-raiding. By comparing studies from populations that have experienced a range of poaching intensities, we find that human activities have a large effect on elephant behaviour and genetic structure. Poaching disrupts kin-based association patterns, decreases the quality of elephant social relationships, and increases male reproductive skew, with important consequences for population health and the maintenance of genetic diversity. In addition, we find that genetic tools to census populations or gather forensic information are almost always more accurate than non-genetic alternatives. These results contribute to a growing understanding of poaching on animal behaviour, and how genetic tools can be used to understand and conserve social species.