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Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo

Stanton D.W.G.,University of Cardiff | Hart J.,Lukuru Foundation | Galbusera P.,Center for Research and Conservation | Helsen P.,Center for Research and Conservation | And 6 more authors.
PLoS ONE | Year: 2014

The okapi is an endangered, evolutionarily distinctive even-toed ungulate classified within the giraffidae family that is endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The okapi is currently under major anthropogenic threat, yet to date nothing is known about its genetic structure and evolutionary history, information important for conservation management given the species' current plight. The distribution of the okapi, being confined to the Congo Basin and yet spanning the Congo River, also makes it an important species for testing general biogeographic hypotheses for Congo Basin fauna, a currently understudied area of research. Here we describe the evolutionary history and genetic structure of okapi, in the context of other African ungulates including the giraffe, and use this information to shed light on the biogeographic history of Congo Basin fauna in general. Using nuclear and mitochondrial DNA sequence analysis of mainly non-invasively collected samples, we show that the okapi is both highly genetically distinct and highly genetically diverse, an unusual combination of genetic traits for an endangered species, and feature a complex evolutionary history. Genetic data are consistent with repeated climatic cycles leading to multiple Plio-Pleistocene refugia in isolated forests in the Congo catchment but also imply historic gene flow across the Congo River. © 2014 Stanton et al.

Stanton D.W.G.,University of Cardiff | Hart J.,Lukuru Foundation | Vosper A.,Wildlife Conservation Society | Kumpel N.F.,Conservation Programmes | And 3 more authors.
ORYX | Year: 2016

The okapi Okapia johnstoni, a rainforest giraffid endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo, was recategorized as Endangered on the IUCN Red List in 2013. Historical records and anecdotal reports suggest that a disjunct population of okapi may have occurred south-west of the Congo River but the current distribution and status of the okapi in this region are not well known. Here we describe the use of non-invasive genetic identification for this species and assess the success of species identification from dung in the wild, which varied throughout the range. This variation is probably attributable to varying okapi population densities and/or different sample collection strategies across the okapi's distribution. Okapi were confirmed to occur south-west of the Congo River, in scattered localities west of the Lomami River. We demonstrated that non-invasive genetic methods can provide information on the distribution of cryptic, uncommon species that is difficult to obtain by other methods. Further investigation is required to genetically characterize the okapi across its range and to investigate the biogeographical processes that have led to the observed distribution of okapi and other fauna in the region. Copyright © Fauna & Flora International 2014.

Stanton D.W.G.,University of Cardiff | Helsen P.,Center for Research and Conservation | Helsen P.,University of Antwerp | Shephard J.,Center for Research and Conservation | And 9 more authors.
Conservation Genetics | Year: 2015

Breeding programs for endangered species increasingly use molecular genetics to inform their management strategies. Molecular approaches can be useful for investigating relatedness, resolving pedigree uncertainties, and for estimating genetic diversity in captive and wild populations. Genetic data can also be used to evaluate the representation of wild population genomes within captive population gene-pools. Maintaining a captive population that is genetically representative of its wild counterpart offers a means of conserving the original evolutionary potential of a species. Okapi, an even-toed ungulate, endemic to the Democratic Republic of Congo, have recently been reclassified as Endangered by the IUCN. We carried out a genetic assessment of the ex-situ okapi (Okapia johnstoni) population, alongside an investigation into the genetic structure of wild populations across their geographic range. We found that while levels of nuclear (12 microsatellite loci) genetic variation in the wild, founder and captive okapi populations were similar, mitochondrial (833 bp of Cyt b, CR, tRNA-Thr and tRNA-Pro) variation within captive okapi was considerably reduced compared to the wild, with 16 % lower haplotype diversity. Further, both nuclear and mitochondrial alleles present in captivity provided only partial representation of those present in the wild. Thirty mitochondrial haplotypes found in the wild were not found in captivity, and two haplotypes found in captivity were not found in the wild, and the patterns of genetic variation at microsatellite loci in our captive samples were considerably different to those of the wild samples. Our study highlights the importance of genetic characterisation of captive populations, even for well-managed ex-situ breeding programs with detailed studbooks. We recommend that the captive US population should be further genetically characterised to guide management of translocations between European and US captive populations. © 2015, Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht.

Marsden S.J.,Manchester Metropolitan University | Loqueh E.,Society for the Conservation of Nature in Liberia | Takuo J.M.,Cameroon Biodiversity Conservation Society | Hart J.A.,Lukuru Foundation | And 5 more authors.
ORYX | Year: 2015

Estimating population sizes in the heavily traded grey parrots of West and Central Africa would provide insights into conservation status and sustainability of harvests. Ideally, density estimates would be derived from a standardized method such as distance sampling, but survey efforts are hampered by the extensive ranges, patchy distribution, variable abundance, cryptic habits and high mobility of the parrots as well as by logistical difficulties and limited resources. We carried out line transect distance sampling alongside a simpler encounter rate method at 10 sites across five West and Central African countries. Density estimates were variable across sites, from 0–0.5 individuals km−2 in Côte d'Ivoire and central Democratic Republic of the Congo to c. 30 km−2 in Cameroon and > 70 km−2 on the island of Príncipe. Most significantly, we identified the relationship between densities estimated from distance sampling and simple encounter rates, which has important applications in monitoring grey parrots: (1) to convert records of parrot groups encountered in a day's activities by anti-poaching patrols within protected areas into indicative density estimates, (2) to confirm low density in areas where parrots are so rare that distance sampling is not feasible, and (3) to provide a link between anecdotal records and local density estimates. Encounter rates of less than one parrot group per day of walking are a reality in most forests within the species’ ranges. Densities in these areas are expected to be one individual km−2 or lower, and local harvest should be disallowed on this basis. Copyright © Fauna & Flora International 2015

News Article
Site: www.scientificamerican.com

Last year researchers working in Ghana made a startling discovery: the illegal pet trade and rampant deforestation had all but wiped out the African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus and P. timneh) in that country. Many populations had fallen to as low at 1 percent of their historic levels. Other sites were completely devoid of the once common birds. Could the same thing happen in other countries? Conservationists working in the Democratic Republic of the Congo have issued a warning that thousands of these valuable parrots—which can ultimately sell for up to $2,000 or more apiece—are being stolen from the wild in that country every month. They are shipped and stored in tiny, dirty cages and smuggled by air to buyers around the world. Many parrots do not survive their perilous illegal journeys. How is it possible to capture so many of these birds before they fly away? It turns out the birds’ own behavior works against them. “Parrots are hyper social,” explains primatologist and filmmaker Cintia Garai, who has spent the past few years in the DRC. “They roost communally and come down in flocks to clearings.” Trappers, she says, find these aggregations and can capture dozens of parrots at a time. “Trappers also climb trees and use decoy parrots,” she adds. “They tie them on branches on the trees and use glue to capture the birds that come to socialize with this bird.” Although at least one province in the DRC has banned parrot captures and trade, it still continues in many areas, including at least one airport that helps to smuggle the birds to middle-men in other countries before they get further shipped to willing buyers. “We have been able to determine in some cases that the parrots go to a small number of identified exporting agents,” Garai says. “As for foreign destinations, we can’t ourselves track these, but colleagues in World Parrot Trust have indicated that DRC parrots go to South Africa and several Middle Eastern destinations, among others.” All of this trade came to Garai’s attention while she was working on bonobo conservation with the TL2 Project (named after the Tshuapa, Lomami and Lualaba Rivers) of the Lukuru Foundation. “I am still a bonobo conservationist, but the parrot crisis was too big and right in front of us,” she says. “I became involved in the African grey parrot situation as it became more and more pressing, with more and more confiscations in the region, and I could see birds suffering and dying. We could not ignore this.” Garai even produced a short documentary about the crisis, which you can see below: Protecting the birds, Garai says, is just one step in protecting everything that lives in the same region. “I learned during the years that if I want to do something for the bonobos, I need to focus on their environment, the forest and its other creatures, and the work has to be started and conducted together with the people living in the area,” she says. “This is something I am learning from John and Terese Hart,” the leaders of the TL2 Project. “Conservation is about changing the attitude and the behavior of local communities toward the wildlife and the forest.” Although the United States and other countries have proposed banning all African grey parrot commerce under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species—a vote is expected later this month—Garai expressed worry about the fate of the birds within the DRC, saying the country “views its parrots as a potentially exploitable resource. They have shown almost no capacity or political will to manage this exploitation.” Beyond the commerce itself, there is also little funding or expertise available to help rehabilitate any birds that have been rescued from the trade. “Taking care of the confiscated parrots requires experts such as veterinarians and experienced caretakers specialized in rehabilitation, a network for transportation of the confiscated birds in the least stressful way to a suitable place, and last but not least, financial resources,” Garai says. “None of these is available in the region at the moment.” She said she hopes her film will inspire other organizations to take the necessary steps to help protect these birds, something that neither the TL2 Project nor the DRC’s government agency, the Congolese Nature Conservation Institute, has the ability to accomplish on their own. African grey parrots can persist in DRC and other countries given the chance. Unlike Ghana, which lost most of its parrot habitat to agriculture, Garai says the birds’ range in the Congo hasn’t faced the same extent of deforestation. “The range is still very large,” she says. Whether there will continue to be enough birds left to fill that range will remain an open question.

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