AboutZoos, Since 2008


Con­ser­va­tion work in zoos is too ran­dom, sci­en­tists warn

pub­lished 18 Jan­u­ary 2014 | mod­i­fied 25 Decem­ber 2014

All around the world zoos work hard and spend enor­mous resources on the con­ser­va­tion of endan­gered species, but the resources are not always opti­mally spent. One big prob­lem is inter­na­tional leg­is­la­tion and the need of more zoos to work in regional or global net­works. Zoo resources can be spent much more effec­tively, say sci­en­tists from Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Den­mark after analysing ani­mal col­lec­tions across the world’s zoos.

Tasmanian devil healthyMany zoos work hard to pro­tect and breed endan­gered ani­mal species in cap­tiv­ity, and they spend a lot of money doing so. But the effort is too ran­dom and the work is crip­pled by inter­na­tional leg­is­la­tion, mak­ing it impos­si­ble to opti­mise the con­ser­va­tion efforts.

There is a need for an inter­na­tional joint strate­gic effort if we want good results from all the money spend, con­clude the researchers, ecol­o­gists Dalia A. Conde, Owen Jones and Fer­nando Colchero from the Max Planck Odense Cen­ter at Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Den­mark. Their study is pub­lished on 11 Decem­ber in the sci­en­tific jour­nal PLOS One.

Only few threat­ened birds in zoos
For exam­ple, on the one hand zoo col­lec­tions are heav­ily focused on birds, but only few threat­ened birds can be found in zoos. On the other hand zoos have a heavy focus on threat­ened tur­tles (
Tes­tudines) and car­niv­o­rous mar­su­pial (Dasyuro­mor­phia).

The preva­lence of threat­ened species in zoo’s do not always reflect the num­ber of threat­ened species in the wild
Dalia Conde, lead author, Max-​Planck Odense Cen­ter on the Biode­mog­ra­phy of Aging and Depart­ment of Biol­ogy, Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Denmark »

“As for the high num­ber of tur­tles, one of the rea­sons is that the zoos have to take over many con­fis­cated ani­mals after smug­glers have tried to trade them ille­gally”, Conde says. Regard­ing to the high num­ber of threat­ened mar­su­pi­als, Dalia Conde explains that Aus­tralian zoos are try­ing to use these species not only for cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams but also to edu­cate peo­ple about the threats, that a local species faces.

The preva­lence of endan­gered species in zoos there­fore not always reflects the preva­lence in nature. Two groups — the tur­tles and car­niv­o­rous mar­su­pial — are over­rep­re­sented, while most groups of threat­ened species are the result of oppor­tunis­tic col­lec­tions rather than a major focus. Besides birds, threat­ened amphib­ians, insect-​eating mam­mals (Eulipo­ty­phyla) and rodents (Roden­tia) are under­rep­re­sented in the world’s zoos. In fact not a sin­gle one of the 84 endan­gered species of insec­tiv­o­rous mam­mals are found in zoos. Among mam­mals, about half (92 of 201) of the endan­gered species are found in zoos. Over­all, 57 out of the 59 ani­mal orders that are found in zoos have a lower pro­por­tion of threat­ened species in zoos than in the wild. This dis­crep­ancy is not the only chal­lenge for con­ser­va­tion work in the zoos, the authors point out:

“Many zoos hold only a small pop­u­la­tion of an endan­gered species and they are strug­gling to make the pop­u­la­tions grow. The zoos need to be able to share expe­ri­ences and indi­vid­u­als with other pop­u­la­tions in order to get a healthy grow­ing pop­u­la­tion. But this is dif­fi­cult, if not impos­si­ble, when there are thou­sands of miles between pop­u­la­tions of the same species and it is highly chal­leng­ing to get per­mits to exchange ani­mals”, the researchers explain. The large dis­tances can make it so dif­fi­cult to work with endan­gered species that zoos have to give up.

ARKive video - Female and young Tasmanian devils in the den

Mov­ing ani­mals across bor­ders
Another big prob­lem is inter­na­tional leg­is­la­tion on endan­gered species. To pro­tect trade and traf­fick­ing of endan­gered ani­mals, it is almost impos­si­ble to get per­mis­sion to trans­port an endan­gered ani­mal across national bor­ders even for cap­tive breed­ing programs.

“This leg­is­la­tion is effec­tive against traf­fick­ing, but it also pre­vents zoos from exchang­ing endan­gered ani­mals, and this is a seri­ously huge bar­rier to devel­op­ing breed­ing pro­grammes of endan­gered ani­mals”, says Dalia Conde. “Zoos need to be able to work together. Ide­ally zoos could coor­di­nate their work on one or a few high-​risk species by work­ing together in regional clus­ters”, she says.

More zoos should become part of ISIS to make this plan­ning [of breed­ing pro­grammes in region­ally clus­tered zoos] successful
Dalia Conde »

Accord­ing to Dalia Conde, Owen Jones and Fer­nando Colchero there are many prac­ti­cal ben­e­fits from work­ing together in regional clus­ters. “With the short dis­tance to each other, the zoos can have a large com­mon pop­u­la­tion of, say, 250 ani­mals dis­trib­uted in the var­i­ous gar­dens in the clus­ter. Such a pop­u­la­tion will be less vul­ner­a­ble than a pop­u­la­tion of 50 ani­mals in one gar­den with­out con­tact to other pop­u­la­tions of the same species”. Dalia Conde con­tin­ues: “Such a strate­gic coop­er­a­tion may mean that the indi­vid­ual zoo should focus on breed­ing pro­grammes for fewer endan­gered species, but it will pro­vide a needed boost to the con­ser­va­tion work. How­ever, these kinds of pro­grammes are only pos­si­ble when zoos are part of a global net­work such as ISIS, where it is pos­si­ble to mon­i­tor the sta­tus of threat­ened species across the planet’s zoos. More zoos should become part of ISIS to make this plan­ning successful.”

The authors point out that although con­ser­va­tion and breed­ing work in the world’s zoos is an impor­tant effort, it should not take focus from the needed efforts to pre­serve the nat­ural habi­tats of endan­gered ani­mals. “Cap­tive breed­ing pro­grams are rather a con­ser­va­tion tool than a con­ser­va­tion goal. The main goal is to con­serve species habi­tats and in fact whole ecosystems”.

How­ever, zoos are look­ing at cap­tive breed­ing because is has been a major tool for the recov­ery of 20% of the 68 species that have become less threat­ened accord­ing to the Inter­na­tional Union of Con­ser­va­tion of Nature.

“We must not expect zoos [to] do this work alone. The pro­tec­tion of the ani­mals’ habi­tats is equally impor­tant”, says Dalia Conde. A valid remark in a time that some con­ser­va­tion­ists think of res­ur­rect­ing extinct species such as the thy­lacine – a car­niv­o­rous mar­su­pial, just because they can [Moos].

Ani­mals and zoos in numbers
- There are 3,995 dif­fer­ent ter­res­trial wild ver­te­brate species (approx­i­mately 455,000 indi­vid­u­als) in the world’s 837 ISIS zoos (mem­bers of the Inter­na­tional Species Infor­ma­tion Sys­tem).
- One of every 7 threat­ened ani­mal species is found in ISIS zoos.
- Zoos devote 23% of their space to threat­ened species. Mam­mals are the major pro­por­tion of threat­ened species in ISIS zoos.
- The organ­i­sa­tion World Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquar­i­ums (WAZA) spends 350 mil­lion dol­lars on species con­ser­va­tion in nat­ural habi­tats. In addi­tion, the mem­bers them­selves are active in many of those con­ser­va­tion projects.
- More than 140 mil­lion peo­ple visit an EAZA zoo each year. EAZA is the Euro­pean Asso­ci­a­tion of Zoos and Aquaria. This is equiv­a­lent to approx­i­mately one in five Euro­pean cit­i­zens. If all EAZA zoo mem­bers com­mit to edu­cate the pub­lic on species con­ser­va­tion they can be a major force of change in Europe.

(Source: Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Den­mark press release, 15.01.2014)

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Tiger map” (CC BY 2.5) by Sander­son et al., 2006.

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