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MORENO, E., JEBALI, A., ESPESO, G. & BENZAL, J. (2020)

Reintroducing Cuvier’s gazelle. Better than expected from captive-bred founders.

Global Ecology and Conservation 23, e01094, ISSN 2351-9894, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.gecco.2020.e01094.

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Abstract:

The use of captive-bred animals as founder stock for reintroduction is sometimes discouraged due to their low genetic diversity and even accumulation of deleterious alleles. In October 2016, 43 Cuvier’s gazelles (12 males and 31 females), managed under a European Endangered Species Programme (EEP) and housed in captivity, formed the base of a reintroduction project in Tunisia. The project approach used soft-release techniques. Upon arrival, animals were released in acclimatisation pens, so they could adjust to the new conditions gradually before true release. This study reports on the three-year period gazelles were in the acclimatisation pens before release into the wild. To assess the suitability of captive-bred Cuvier’s gazelles as founder stock for reintroduction, the demographic parameters of the reintroduced population were studied for three reproductive seasons in Tunisia (2017–2019). The demographic parameters of the reintroduced population were also compared to those from the source captive population as a control during the first breeding season. If the animals used as founders were unsuited, a decrease in demographic parameters could be expected over time in the reintroduced population, as well as lower demographic variables compared to the source population. Contrary to expectations, during the three-year study period, all demographic variables increased in the population reintroduced in Tunisia, except juvenile mortality, which decreased. Moreover, none of the demographic values of the gazelles in Tunisia were significantly different from the source population. We hypothesize that in the extremely bottlenecked captive Cuvier’s gazelle population used as founder stock, genetic diversity was still high enough to surmount the presumably deleterious effects of inbreeding. This is probably due to very high heritability (h2), a parameter providing information on the quantitative genetic variation associated with multi-locus quantitative traits previously found in this population. Although reintroduction programs have traditionally been undertaken purely as management exercises, ours was designed to meet a research objective as well. We wanted to find out the adaptive variation in sex ratio in offspring of female Cuvier’s gazelles using the size of the enclosure as a proxy reflecting their body condition. As found in captivity using consanguinity level as a proxy of body condition, in the reintroduced population, mothers in large enclosures produced more daughters while those in the small ones produced more sons, which supports adaptive manipulation of the birth sex ratio favoured by natural selection in reintroduced Cuvier’s gazelles.

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