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Genetic confirmation of a hybridization zone of forest and savannah elephants at the extreme north of Kibale forest, Uganda
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  • Julie Bonnald,
  • Jose Utge,
  • Mary Kuhner,
  • Samuel Wasser,
  • Edward Asalu,
  • John Paul Okimat,
  • Sabrina Krief
Julie Bonnald
Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle

Corresponding Author:[email protected]

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Jose Utge
Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle
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Mary Kuhner
University of Washington
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Samuel Wasser
University of Washington
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Edward Asalu
Uganda Wildlife Authority
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John Paul Okimat
Sebitoli Chimpanzee Project, Sebitoli research station, Kibale National Park
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Sabrina Krief
Museum National d'Histoire Naturelle
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Abstract

After a long-standing debate, African elephants, listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red list of Threatened Species, are now considered by the IUCN as two distinct species: savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) and forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis), the latter being severely threatened by forest loss, fragmentation and degradation due to agriculture expansion, as well as by the illegal ivory trade. Although the two species have different habitat preferences, their range overlaps in some ecotones; despite an ancient separation between these two species, hybrids have been reported in four locations. The main area of hybridization known today is located on the DRC-Uganda border, but remains understudied. Using 15 microsatellites, we aimed to investigate this hybridization zone by determining the species and hybrid status of 177 fecal samples collected in the area of Sebitoli, at the extreme North of Kibale National Park. Surprisingly for a forest area, no pure forest elephants were detected. Out of the 91 individuals sampled a very large proportion (81.3%) were hybrid individuals mainly from a second generation or more. Only 18.7% of pure savannah elephants were detected, all originating from the DRC-Uganda border. Further analyses are necessary to assess the age of this hybridization zone. Our results emphasize that hybrids and savannah elephants can successfully range in forested area. They also show that forest elephants are rare even in their native habitat. The proposed amendment of IUCN regarding the African elephant taxonomy may help to better conserve the threatened forest elephant.