Dr Benoît Goossens

Dr Benoît Goossens

Director, Danau Girang Field Centre, Reader

School of Biosciences

+60 (0)12 8364 005
Lot 6, Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Sabah, Malaysia

My research interests are in the field of molecular evolution and the applied fields of molecular ecology and behavioural ecology. I use a molecular genetic approach to answer specific questions of ecology, animal behaviour (mating systems, sociality, sexual selection, mate choice), population genetics  and evolutionary biology.

I am also very interested in conservation biology, particularly endangered species conservation. The recent technical developments in genetics and the use of non-invasive methods (hair and faeces samples collected in the field) now give us new powerful tools for the long-term management of wildlife  populations. My projects focus on mammals and concern principally primates (orang-utans and chimpanzees), carnivores (giant and red pandas) and herbivores (black rhinos and elephants).


Reproductive structure and conservation of the Sumatran orang-utan

Funded by The Leverhulme Trust

My first post-doctoral project (March 98-November 00) focused on the mating strategies and the reproductive success of male Sumatran orangutans (Pongo pygmaeus abelii) as well as orang population genetic structure in the Gunung Leuser National Park, North Sumatra. The orang-utan is the only Asian great ape, and is essentially a solitary animal. We now know more about its ecology and social behaviour but a number of important questions  remain to be answered, relating largely to reproductive strategies and the resulting patterns of genetic variability. We addressed the following questions:

(i) Which are the breeding males in the population? (Utami et al. 2002)

(ii) What are the densities of males and females in the areas around our study site?

(iii) What is the effective population size of the Sumatran orang-utan?

(iv) What is the current conservation status of the Sumatran orang-utan over its entire range?

Conservation of the orangutan in Kinabatangan Wildlife Sanctuary, Sabah, Malaysia

Funded by The Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species (DETR)

This project is a three-year collaborative program between the BEPG (Michael Bruford & Benoît Goossens) at Cardiff University, the Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation at University Malaysia Sabah (Maryati Mohamed), the Sabah Wildlife Department (Patrick Andau) and the Kinabatangan Orang-Utan  Conservation Project (Isabelle Lackman-Ancrenaz & Marc Ancrenaz).

The main objectives of this DETR-funded initiative (December 2000-November 2003):

  • Establish a high quality, long-term research program at the UMS in tropical and biology conservation using non-invasive population genetic techniques.
  • Establish a university teaching programme in conservation science through which candidates for further training can be identified, and through which increased national awareness of conservation issues can be raised.
  • Establish population genetic methodology that will be applicable to endangered rainforest species; the work will focus initially on the Bornean orangutan.
  • Establish the genetic consequences of recent demographic changes brought about due to human pressure, habitat disturbance, population fragmentation, and high density.

Paternity analysis, relatedness and mating system in a wild black rhinoceros population in Zimbabwe

Funded by The Royal Society

Black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis minor) have suffered one of the most dramatic declines of all mammals in Africa but numbers have now stabilised at around 2,600 animals. The management of the remaining populations aims at reducing the short term and long term risks of extinction represented by poaching, demographic  stochasticity and loss of genetic diversity, through the optimal breeding of remaining animals, together with the regular translocations between populations.

However, such management strategies can only be successful if they are based on an accurate knowledge of both individual and population reproductive success, together with an understanding of the species mating systems and social structure. This information is currently largely incomplete for the black  rhinoceros.

This project is based in the Save Valley Conservancy in Zimbabwe where a population of 60 black rhinoceros has been followed and studied by Dr Julie Garnier (The Zoological Society of London) to understand their demographics, social structure and reproductive biology in the wild. In order to complement  her study on mating strategies and reproduction in this population, we have collected non-invasive genetic samples, in order to establish which animals of both sexes are breeding males and their patterns of relatedness within and among black rhinoceros demographic units within the Conservancy (Garnier  et al. 2001).

Such information has never before been gathered in this species and is potentially crucial for the management of populations.

Biogeography and conservation of red and giant pandas in China

Social integration of released chimpanzees and their impact on the genetic structure of a free-ranging population in the Conkouati Reserve, Republic of Congo

This project is a collaborative program between the BEPG (Michael Bruford & Benoît Goossens) and the NGO HELP Congo (Aliette Jamart, Stéphanie Latour, Carmen Vidal). In 1989, "Habitat Ecologique et Liberté des Primates" (HELP, http://www.help-primates.org), a Congolese NGO, was created by Aliette Jamart to respond to an emergency caused by the state of young chimpanzees orphaned by poaching and confiscated by the Congolese authorities. The main objective of HELP was to return the  chimpanzees to their natural environment. In 1991, the NGO was allowed by the Ministry of Water & Forests to create a sanctuary that was established on the shore of the Conkouati lagoon, 180 km north of Pointe Noire.

In 1994 and 1996, Dr Caroline Tutin was responsible for selecting a suitable release site which must be able to provide sufficient resources for the released individuals without adverse effects accruing on the species already present, especially the small population of wild chimpanzees. A site was been  selected, named the Triangle.

The first chimpanzees were released in December 1996, followed by four other subgroups in January 1997, November 1997, January 1999 and June-July 2000. To date, HELP has released 24 chimpanzees and those animals are monitored since their first-day release.

The release project led by HELP Congo is a success because 17-21 chimpanzees have regained the freedom to which they were born, and it has had important spin-off benefits to wild chimpanzees, to the sympatric fauna, and to the vegetation of the Conkouati Reserve thanks to the effective protection of  the site and its environs (see Tutin et al. 2001). In order to allow efficient post-release monitoring, we investigated levels of genetic variability, relatedness and parentage within the poached population using microsatellite loci (Goossens et al. 2000; Goossens et al. 2002).

Ultimately, we aim to non-invasively genetic tag and track released individuals, to monitor their social integration in the wild population in the Conkouati Reserve and to assess their reproductive success by using a molecular genetic approach.

Conservation of the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) in central Africa

Funded by The Royal Society, a Darwin Scholarship to Mireille Bawe-Johnson, FORINFO, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Tusk Trust and the British Ecological Society.

This project is a collaborative program between the BEPG (Michael Bruford & Benoît Goossens) and the Centre International de Recherches Médicales de Franceville (Jean Wickings & Mireille Bawe-Johnson) in Gabon, the Wildlife Conservation Society in Gabon (Lee White & Ludovic Momont) and in  Congo (Steve Blakke & Fiona Maisels), and the NGO HELP Congo. Given the current interest in the forest elephant (Loxodonta cyclotis) as a new species, and the lack of information on basic ecology and demographics of populations, it appeared timely to initiate a study examining the genetic variability  within and between populations, as well as their social organisation. The objectives are the following:

A forest elephant in the Conkouati-Douli National Park, Republic of Congo (copyright: Benoit Goossens)

1. Population genetic structure of forest elephant across its habitat range in central Africa: The collection of faeces across varying ecological settings within their tropical rainforest habitat would permit us to examine the genetic variability, and to define levels of gene flow between  populations, as well as indicating those populations potentially isolated and hence, threatened.
2. Ranging behaviour of known individuals and seasonal patterns of habitat use:The possibility of identifying individual elephants not only morphologically, but also genetically, would  extend the amount of data, which can be accrued on animal displacements, ranging behaviour, and habitat use.

The results will have a two-fold role in assisting elephant conservation in Africa

  1. Understanding the habitat requirements of different elephant populations in different habitat types will aid conservation and management plans of their environment.
  2. A Gabonese scientist (Mireille Bawe-Johnson) will receive training in conservation biology, population genetics and molecular ecology in Cardiff University during her PhD and will bring his experience back in Gabon.

Conservation of the Bornean elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis) in Sabah, Malaysia

Funded by the Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species, Round 13

This project is a three-year collaborative project between the BEPG (Mike Bruford & Benoit Goossens) at Cardiff University, the Sabah Wildlife Department (SWD, Laurentius Ambu & Augustine Tuuga), the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project (Isabelle Lackman-Ancrenaz & Marc Ancrenaz),  the WWF-Malaysia (John Payne) and the Institute for Tropical Biology and Conservation at University Malaysia Sabah (Maryati Mohamed). The main objective of this new DETR-funded initiative (July 2005-June 2008) is to provide a range of essential conservation and management information concerning the ecology,  genetics, social structure, dispersal and conflicts with agriculture for the newly described Bornean elephant (Elephas maximus borneensis), including extensive field and laboratory training and capacity building in the host country, Sabah, Malaysia.

The Asian elephant is protected and is classified as endangered under Sabah legislation (Sabah Wildlife Enactment, 1997). The Bornean elephant sub-species has recently been confirmed as a separate taxon, dramatically increasing its importance in terms of biodiversity. In a recent general survey, SWD  and WWF-Malaysia estimated that about 1,100-1,500 elephants survive in Borneo. They showed that the remnant populations were mainly found in eastern Sabah, and were highly fragmented. The Bornean elephant is thus the world's most endangered member of the Proboscidae, highlighting the urgent need to undertake  sound conservation action in the near future. SWD has recently produced a first draft of the State Action Plan for elephants. Following explicit recommendations of this State Action Plan, our work will provide information that is currently lacking, including the distribution and movement of individuals,  genetic differentiation between populations, threats to genetic diversity, identification of priority areas for the species that should be kept under forest cover to allow movements of individuals between the different sub-populations and the genetic identification of persistent crop-raiding individuals.

Phylogeography and population genetic structure of the black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis) in Kenya

Supervision of a Kenyan PhD student, Mr Shadrack Muya, from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Nairobi. Kenya.

The black rhinoceros population in Kenya has undergone a drastic decline from approximately 10,000 animals in the 1950's to approximately 400 animals in 1990. This was mainly due to widespread hunting for horns and habitat fragmentation. Currently, there are approximately 458 black rhinoceros in Kenya.  They exist in small populations in 13 disjunct conservation areas under intense protection. Populations that undergo such drastic declines and fragmentations are expected to experience bottlenecks; especially when post-decline recovery is slow. Threats these populations are likely to experience include  reduced group fitness due to inbreeding and loss of heterozygous advantage, decreased adaptability and loss of evolutionary potential. They are also susceptible to extinction due to stochastic events. Managing the small populations as metapopulations through translocations of individuals between the  subpopulations can minimize these threats.

This study will examine the phylogeographic patterns, genetic diversity and differentiation within and between the black rhinoceros populations in the 13 rhino conservation areas in Kenya. Special emphasis will be directed towards areas with remnant indigenous populations where introductions have not  been carried out. This study will generate baseline data for future identification of all black rhinos (individuals and populations) in Kenya using genetic tools and it will assess the necessity and implications of retaining black rhinos in separate management units. Molecular data will be collected  through non-invasive techniques from dung dropped voluntarily by the animals and will be sequenced and genotyped using published methods.

This project is a collaborative initiative between Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, the Kenya Wildlife Service, Bioscience for East and Central Africa (BecA), National Museums of Kenya and Cardiff University.