India is home to approximately 60 per cent of the world's remaining wild tigers, a species that has declined in the last few centuries to occupy less than 7 per cent of its former geographical range. While Indian tiger numbers have somewhat stabilized in recent years, they remain low and populations are highly fragmented. Therefore, the application of evidence-based demographic and genetic management to enhance the remaining populations is a priority. In this context, and using genetic data from historical and modern tigers, we investigated anthropogenic impacts on genetic variation in Indian tigers using mitochondrial and nuclear genetic markers. We found a very high number of historical mitochondrial DNA variants, 93 per cent of which are not detected in modern populations. Population differentiation was higher in modern tigers. Simulations incorporating historical data support population decline, and suggest high population structure in extant populations. Decreased connectivity and habitat loss as a result of ongoing fragmentation in the Indian subcontinent has therefore resulted in a loss of genetic variants and increased genetic differentiation among tiger populations. These results highlight that anthropogenic fragmentation and species-specific demographic processes can interact to alter the partitioning of genetic variation over very short time scales. We conclude that ongoing strategies to maximize the size of some tiger populations, at the expense of losing others, is an inadequate conservation strategy, as it could result in a loss of genetic diversity that may be of adaptive significance for this emblematic species.
- Received February 28, 2013.
- Accepted April 23, 2013.
- © 2013 The Author(s) Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.