Devon conservationists use dung and DNA to track shy antelope

(Last Updated On: June 19, 2014)

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Scientists from a wildlife charity based in Devon are part of an international team studying an elusive African antelope through its dung.

A paper published in the journal Endangered Species Research reports that the wild population of Abbott’s duiker is potentially inbred – but that there is still a chance to save this neglected species from extinction.

Dr Andrew Bowkett, from the Field Conservation and Research Department of the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust, based at Paignton Zoo, and the Director of Conservation, Research and Advocacy for WWCT, Dr Amy Plowman, both worked on the project. In addition, researchers at the University of Exeter and Anglia Ruskin University, conservationists in Tanzania and scientists in Italy and Denmark all contributed to the work.

Dr Bowkett explained: “It’s a forest detective story with DNA clues. Identifying the species through genetic testing of dung is non-invasive – it doesn’t disturb the animals. We also used camera traps for the same reason.

“Abbott’s duiker is one of the most threatened species in Tanzania. We found evidence that Abbott’s duiker is still found in remote areas of forest where no one has reported seeing them for years, if at all. However, these isolated populations are at risk due to inbreeding and other problems that afflict very small populations.”

The highland forests of Tanzania are amongst the most important areas in the world for biodiversity conservation. Abbott’s duiker is threatened by the fragmentation of its forest home and by hunting.

Abbott’s duiker (Cephalophus spadix) is a forest antelope endemic to a very few highland forests in Tanzania. The species is listed as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The Udzungwa Mountains may be its final stronghold.

“As an endangered species found only in Tanzania, our results for Abbott’s duiker in the Udzungwa Mountains have significant conservation importance. Despite the rarity and low genetic diversity there is some hope, as they are still found more forests than we realised and other evidence suggests that conservation measures do work.”

Dr Plowman explained: “There is evidence that Abbott’s duiker populations may be able to recover in areas where conservation action has been implemented. We need laws prohibiting hunting and deforestation in protected areas to be properly enforced – the forests in the Udzungwa Mountains provide a steady supply of water for villages and farms, and so are essential for local people as well as for endangered species”

This paper is the result of 6 years of data collection and analysis. The paper can be found online at http://www.int-res.com/abstracts/esr/v24/n2/p105-114/.

The Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust is the charity that runs Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, as well as several nature reserves in Devon. For more information go to www.wwct.org.uk/.

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