Reduced effective population size in an overexploited population of the Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus)
Unchecked exploitation of wildlife resources is one of the major factors influencing species persistence throughout the world today. A significant consequence of exploitation is the increasing rate at which genetic diversity is lost as populations decline. Recent studies suggest that life history traits affecting population growth, particularly in long-lived species, may act to moderate the impact of population decline on genetic variation and lead to remnant populations that appear genetically diverse despite having passed through substantial demographic bottlenecks. In this study we show that the retention of genetic variation in a partially recovered population of Nile crocodile is deceptive, as it masks the reality of a significant decline in the population's effective size (Ne). Repeated episodes of unchecked hunting in the mid to late 20th century have today led to a five-fold decrease in the population's Ne. Using current census data we estimate the contemporary Ne/N ratio as ∼0.05 and, in light of quotas that permit the ongoing removal of adults, simulated the likely effects of genetic drift on extant levels of variation. Results indicate that even if the current effective size is maintained, both allelic diversity and heterozygosity will decline. Our findings have complex implications for long-lived species; an emphasis on the retention of genetic variation alone, whilst disregarding the effects of population decline on effective size, may ultimately obscure the continued decline and extinction of exploited populations. © 2009 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.