Dear EarthTalk: Do zoos have serious programs to save endangered species, besides putting a few captives on display for everyone to see?
-- Kelly Traw, Seattle, WA
Most zoos are not only great places to get up close to wildlife, but many are also doing their part to bolster dwindling populations of animals still living free in the wild. To wit, dozens of zoos across North America participate in the Association of Zoos and Aquarium’s (AZA’s) Species Survival Plan (SSP) Program, which aims to manage the breeding of specific endangered species in order to help maintain healthy and self-sustaining populations that are both genetically diverse and demographically stable.
The end goal of many SSPs is the reintroduction of captive-raised endangered species into their native wild habitats. According to the AZA, SSPs and related programs have helped bring black-footed ferrets, California condors, red wolves and several other endangered species back from the brink of extinction over the last three decades. Zoos also use SSPs as research tools to better understand wildlife biology and population dynamics, and to raise awareness and funds to support field projects and habitat protection for specific species. AZA now administers some 113 different SSPs covering 181 individual species.
To be selected as the focus of an SSP, a species must be endangered or threatened in the wild. Also, many SSP species are “flagship species,” meaning that they are well-known to people and engender strong feelings for their preservation and the protection of their habitat. The AZA approves new SSP programs if various internal advisory committees deem the species in question to be needy of the help and if sufficient numbers of researchers at various zoos or aquariums can dedicate time and resources to the cause.
AZA’s Maryland-based Conservation and Science Department administers the worldwide SSP program, generating master plans for specific species and coordinating research, transfer and reintroductions. Part of this process involves designing a “family tree” of particular managed populations in order to achieve maximum genetic diversity and demographic stability. AZA also makes breeding and other management recommendations with consideration given to the logistics and feasibility of transfers between institutions as well as maintenance of natural social groupings. In some cases, master plans may recommend not to breed specific animals, so as to avoid having captive populations outgrow available holding spaces.
While success stories abound, most wildlife biologists consider SSP programs to be works in progress. AZA zoos have been instrumental, for instance, in establishing a stable population of bongos, a threatened forest antelope native to Africa, through captive breeding programs under the SSP program. Many of these captive-bred bongos have subsequently been released into the wild and have helped bolster dwindling population numbers accordingly.
Of course, for every success story there are dozens of other examples where results have been less satisfying. SSP programs for lowland gorillas, Andean condors, giant pandas and snow leopards, among others, have not had such clear success, but remain part of the larger conservation picture for the species in question and the regions they inhabit.
CONTACTS: AZA’s Conservation & Science Program, www.aza.org/Conscience.
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The Pros and Cons of Zoos
- Length: 597 words (1.7 double-spaced pages)
- Rating: Excellent
There are over 1,500 zoos in the world and over 200 of them are in Great Britain alone. This shows how popular zoos are all over the globe. With the wide range of species and animal presentations, it’s no wonder why 600,000 customers stream through zoo doors every year. However, zoos are always looking for ways to make money. Currently, Edinburgh Zoo, is trying to sell off some land so they can keep the zoo functioning. This shows they’re willing to sell off land that is meant for these animals, just to keep this unnatural habitat viable.
If an animal was under threat in their natural habitat it would be inhumane not to rescue them, not the other way around. We are merely protecting them from poachers and extinction. Breeding programmes are the main function of zoos, by reproducing species for our future generations, we are conserving animals. Some may say though that we should be leaving these animals alone to live their lives, no matter if it’s a short or long one. It’s a breach of their natural rights to use them for our own purposes, and the human race has done enough for these poor animals. I personally think that the zoos breeding programmes are a bad idea they have a very low success rate and by the end of the programme the animal hasn’t got the characteristics of what the animal born in wild would have, so it’s just a waste of time.
Zoos where animals are fed well and looked after properly with nice surroundings should be encouraged throughout the world and in most zoos this is the standard they go by. Maybe if one zoo is suffering from abusive problems it does not mean that all zoos should be shut down. Even if these are the guidelines zoos follow animals are still stressed and suffering. They show this by displaying self-destructive behaviour. What is educational about watching an animal in its unnatural habitat, behaving in a way that it wouldn’t normally behave? In my opinion children would be better educated reading a book or watching a documentary of an animal behaving in a natural way, and if that means animals dying out then at least they died with their dignity intact.
If families and children come along to zoos as often as the figures say then ideas will be put in their heads that it’s okay for animals to be trapped in small cages and that they are only there for our entertainment and not our educational needs.
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Fortunately, most modern zoos main focus is in fact to educate the public. Many schools go to the zoos on trips and are shown presentations to learn about the animals. I believe that zoos need to be showing us that they’re not for entertainment but more for our educational purposes.
For some animals that are nearing extinction it is necessary for tests to be done to figure out new medicines and how to treat them. It is imperative that we get a chance to observe these animals and come up with new and improved treatments so that they can survive in their own habitats, bearing in mind that their habitats are constantly changing. However, what is the point in testing animals and finding new medicines when it is only on the rare occasion that animals do actually get sent back to the wild? Animals never needed man’s helped before, and we’ve interfered for the worst. I think that it’s wrong that we are interfering with animals because we are interested in what we would find.
To conclude, I believe, after the points I have made and the arguments that I have stated, that it is wrong for animals to be kept in zoos and to be deprived of their natural habitats and rights.