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Bridging elephant populations in Sabah

25th February, 2016

KOTA KINABALU: Bornean elephants show a low significant degree of genetic differentiation among populations and securing connectivity between spatially distinct population and avoiding further fragmentation within population being an absolute necessity if we want to conserve the species.

This is one of the main conclusions of a paper published online on Tuesday in the scientific journal Biological Conservation by a team of scientists from Danau Girang Field Centre (DGFC, Sabah), 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.

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

“Back in 2005-2007, our team spent several months collecting dung samples from all elephant ranges in Sabah, then analysing their DNA to provide an insight in 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 and significant genetic differentiation between populations, especially between ranges such as the Kinabatangan, Tabin and Central Sabah (Malua, Ulu Segama, Kalabakan, Kuamut, Gunung Rara Forest Reserves),” explained Dr Benoit Goossens, Director of DGFC and the lead author of the study, in a statement here, yesterday.

Interestingly, he said the Kinabatangan population appeared to be the most genetically diverse, leading to two critical recommendations – reconnecting the Kinabatangan population to other populations in the state and to strictly avoid any fragmentation of the Kinabatangan population.

“Unfortunately, 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,” stressed Goossens.

He said if populations decrease too much in size, they will become more sensitive to random events such as climate change or further fragmentation due to infrastructure development (like it could happen in the Kinabatangan).

Then inbreeding and loss of genetic variation would be inevitable consequences of small population sizes and could lead to the extinction of the species in Sabah and therefore in Borneo. – Bernama

   
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