Malaysia: Alarm over elephant inbreeding

MUGUNTAN VANAR The Star 25 Feb 16;

KOTA KINABALU: Poor connectivity between Sabah’s forests may put the future of its Bornean elephant population in jeopardy.

Experts believe that the state’s 2,500 Bornean elephants were at risk of inbreeding in fragmented areas of its jungles as they are unable to meet elephants from other parts to mate and strengthen their gene pool.

This was the main conclusion of a paper published online yesterday in the scientific journal Biological Conservation by a team of scientists from Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah (DGFC), Cardiff University (UK), the NGO Hutan (Sabah), Instituto Gulbenkian de Ciência (Portugal), the Institute for Systems Genomics (USA), the CNRS (France), and Sabah Wildlife Department.

Over the years, the clearing of land for development and the opening up of plantations have left many forests fragmented, making it difficult for wildlife to roam without coming in conflict with humans.

The study said inbreeding could occur in the future among the elephants in forested areas of Lower Kinabatangan, Upper Kinabatangan and Central Sabah if these areas are not connected.

“The study basically tells us that there is a need for the elephants in the various areas to meet and mate to create a bigger gene pool for its very survival in Sabah,’’ DGFC director Dr Benoit Goosens said.

He said the study found that the Bornean elephants showed a low degree of genetic differentiation among its populations.

“It is now very important to secure forest connectivity between these distinct populations to avoid further fragmentation within the population if we want to conserve the species,” he said.

The study was funded by the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Elephant Family, Houston Zoo, Columbus Zoo and the Portuguese Science Foundation.

Dr Goosens, the lead author of the study said their teams spent several months collecting dung samples from all elephant ranges in Sabah and then analysing their DNA to provide an insight into their genetic diversity and determine the degree of population fragmentation and isolation of the existing herds.

“It was alarming to detect reduced gene flow levels among elephant populations in Sabah, especially between ranges such as the Kinabatangan, Tabin and Central Sabah (Malua, Ulu Segama, Kalabakan, Kuamut, Gunung Rara Forest Reserves).”

He said that the recent news of a potential bridge to be built over the Kinabatangan river in Sukau and further road development within the Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, could jeopardise the long-term survival of the elephant population in the region and subsequently in the state.

Hutan’s scientific director Dr Marc Ancrenaz said there was a need for a long term solution by securing elephant “highways”, or forest corridors that the animals can use to move across forests as the current situation is seeing a lot of human-elephant conflict.

The paper can be found at the following link until April 13, 2016: http://authors.elsevier.com/a/1SbFB1R~e3C20

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