Published on Fri Oct 08 2021

Can DNA help trace the local trade of pangolins? A genetic assessment of white-bellied pangolins from the Dahomey Gap (West Africa)

Zanvo, S., Djagoun, S. C. A. M., Azihou, A. F., Djossa, B., Afiademanyo, K., Olayemi, A., Agbangla, C., Sinsin, B., Gaubert, P.

We sequenced and genotyped 189 white-bellied pangolins from 18 forests and 12 wildlife markets using one mitochondrial fragment and 20 microsatellites loci. We identified a 92-98% decline in DGL effective population size 200-500 ya.

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Abstract

We conducted in the Dahomey Gap (DG) a pioneer study on the genetic tracing of the African pangolin trade. We sequenced and genotyped 189 white-bellied pangolins from 18 forests and 12 wildlife markets using one mitochondrial fragment and 20 microsatellites loci. Tree-based assignment procedure showed the 'endemicity' of the pangolin trade, as strictly fed by the lineage endemic to the DG (DGL). DGL populations were characterized by low levels of genetic diversity, an overall absence of equilibrium, inbreeding depression and lack of geographic structure. We identified a 92-98% decline in DGL effective population size 200-500 ya -concomitant with major political transformations along the 'Slave Coast' - leading to contemporaneous estimates inferior to minimum viable population size. Genetic tracing suggested that wildlife markets from the DG sourced through the entire DGL range. Our loci provided the necessary power to distinguish among all the genotyped pangolins, tracing the dispatch of same individuals on the markets and within local communities. We developed an approach combining rarefaction analysis of private allele frequencies and cross-validation with observed data that could trace five traded pangolins to their forest origin, c. 200-300 km away from the markets. Although the genetic toolkit that we designed from traditional markers can prove helpful to trace the pangolin trade, our tracing ability was limited by the lack of population structure within DGL. Given the deleterious combination of genetic, demographic and trade-related factors affecting DGL populations, the conservation status of white-bellied pangolins in the DG should be urgently re-evaluated.