Savannah elephant populations have been severely reduced and fragmented throughout its remaining range. In general, however, there is limited information regarding their genetic status, which is essential knowledge for conservation. We investigated patterns of genetic variation in savannah elephants from the Greater Kruger Biosphere, with a focus on those in previously unstudied nature reserves adjacent to Kruger National Park, using dung samples from 294 individuals and 18 microsatellites. The results of genetic structure analyses using several different methods of ordination and Bayesian clustering strongly suggest that elephants throughout the Greater Kruger National Park (GKNP) constitute a single population. No evidence of a recent genetic bottleneck was detected using three moment-based approaches and two coalescent likelihood methods. The apparent absence of a recent genetic bottleneck associated with the known early 1900s demographic bottleneck may result from a combination of rapid post-bottleneck population growth, immigration and long generation time. Point estimates of contemporary effective population size (Ne) for the GKNP were ~ 500–700, that is, at the low end of the range of Ne values that have been proposed for maintaining evolutionary potential and the current ratio of Ne to census population size (Nc) may be quite low (<0.1). This study illustrates the difficulties in assessing the impacts on Ne in populations that have suffered demographic crashes but have recovered rapidly and received gene flow, particularly in species with long generation times in which genetic time lags are longer. This work provides a starting point and baseline information for genetic monitoring of the GKNP elephants.
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