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Genetic rescue of an isolated African lion population


Fragmented wildlife populations are challenged by limited gene flow that can lead to significant inbreeding. The lion (Panthera leo) population in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park (HiP) started from a small founder population of one adult male (1958), one adult female, followed by two lionesses and three cubs (two females and one male; 1965; unrelated to the male). A genetic rescue effort was launched after signs of inbreeding were observed in the 1990s. Sixteen lions (13 females and three males) were translocated into the HiP population from Pilanesberg National Park and Madikwe Game Reserve. We assessed the genetic consequences 10 to 15 years post translocation (n = 91), using microsatellite markers. Structure analysis revealed integration of the translocated animals and evidence of a unique post-translocation genetic cluster. Allelic richness increased from 2.26 to 3.88, and heterozygosity from 0.40 to 0.65. However, overall relatedness within (0.19) and among (0.15) existing prides remained higher than in an open system, and both allelic richness and heterozygosity were declining in later post-translocation generations. Thus, although genetic rescue is a valuable tool for the recovery of inbred, isolated populations, genetic augmentation should be performed at regular intervals to ensure continued population viability.

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We acknowledge Gus van Dyk formerly from Northwest Parks and Tourism Board, Pete Hartley and Dave Balfour from Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (EKZNW) and Neil Ferguson from University of KwaZulu-Natal for discussions and planning that were integral to the genetic rescue effort. A large number of EKZNW staff and numerous research assistants, students and volunteers worked long hours at night, in difficult conditions, to collect samples. We especially thank Drs Dave Cooper and Birgit Eggers, the EKZNW veterinarians for assistance in immobilizing and sampling the lions. We acknowledge funding from a THRIP grant to N. Ferguson, NRF and UKZN funding to R. Slotow, NRF and UP funding to P. Bloomer, The Green Trust (WWF-SA) grant to M. Somers, NSF, Walt Disney Foundation and MGM Grand Hotels grants to C. Packer, Wild about Cats, Hluhluwe Tourism Association, Bateleurs, Wildlife Conservation Trust and Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Thanks also to Jacqui Bishop, Vincent Naude, and Gabi Leighton for helpful discussions during the data analysis stage. Thanks to three anonymous reviewers for helpful comments on an earlier version that improved this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Susan M. Miller.

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This project was approved by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife (Project number: E/5107/04). Ethical clearance for animal sampling was obtained by R Slotow from the University of Kwazulu-Natal Animal Ethics Committee. Post-translocation samples were all collected as part of a larger monitoring project on Hluhluwe-iMfolozi Park by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

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Miller, S.M., Druce, D.J., Dalton, D.L. et al. Genetic rescue of an isolated African lion population. Conserv Genet 21, 41–53 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10592-019-01231-y

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  • Fragmented population
  • Genetic rescue
  • Inbreeding
  • Panthera leo