Assessment of genetic diversity, population structure, and gene flow of tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) across Nepal's Terai Arc Landscape


With fewer than 200 tigers (Panthera tigris tigris) left in Nepal, that are generally confined to five protected areas across the Terai Arc Landscape, genetic studies are needed to provide crucial information on diversity and connectivity for devising an effective country-wide tiger conservation strategy. As part of the Nepal Tiger Genome Project, we studied landscape change, genetic variation, population structure, and gene flow of tigers across the Terai Arc Landscape by conducting Nepal's first comprehensive and systematic scat-based, non-invasive genetic survey. Of the 770 scat samples collected opportunistically from five protected areas and six presumed corridors, 412 were tiger (57%). Out of ten microsatellite loci, we retain eight markers that were used in identifying 78 individual tigers. We used this data set to examine population structure, genetic variation, contemporary gene flow, and potential population bottlenecks of tigers in Nepal. We detected three genetic clusters consistent with three demographic sub-populations and found moderate levels of genetic variation (H-e = 0.61, A(R) = 3.51) and genetic differentiation (F-ST = 0.14) across the landscape. We detected 3-7 migrants, confirming the potential for dispersal-mediated gene flow across the landscape. We found evidence of a bottleneck signature likely caused by large-scale land-use change documented in the last two centuries in the Terai forest. Securing tiger habitat including functional forest corridors is essential to enhance gene flow across the landscape and ensure long-term tiger survival. This requires cooperation among multiple stakeholders and careful conservation planning to prevent detrimental effects of anthropogenic activities on tigers.