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Saving Endangered Species

17/05/2019 in Conservation

The value of collaboration, conservation breeding and having a very good plan


Reintroduced beaver in Knapdale photo by Steve Gardner

Above: On 1 May, RZSS celebrated the return of beavers to Scotland after 10 years of reintroduction efforts - photo by Steve Gardner.

Today, 17 May, is Endangered Species Day, but what role do zoos really play in saving threatened wildlife? As extinction rebellion gains traction in the media and the recent IPBES report highlights that human actions have already driven at least 680 vertebrate species to extinction since the year 1500, it’s clear that global declines in biodiversity are more relevant than ever before. Here at RZSS, we tend to work in the A&E room of the species recovery hospital, helping species that are on the verge of extinction. We do this by working with species in the wild (in-situ) and by establishing captive breeding populations (ex-situ). Clearly, we don't take starting a captive population for conservation lightly; it requires an awful lot of work, knowledge and planning. With the right team and the right plan, however, it can be the best hope for species on the edge.

Making the decision to captive manage

Pallas's cat at RZSS Highland Wildlife Park

Above: RZSS is a partner is the Pallas's cat International Conservation Alliance (PICA Project) - photo by Jon-Paul Orsi

There has to be a very good case for ex-situ management before an organisation like RZSS will get involved. The IUCN, a global organisation responsible for recording the status of the world’s biodiversity and protecting it, has clear guidelines on this topic. They recommend that if a species becomes Critically Endangered (broadly speaking fewer than 1000 individuals left in the wild), then captive management should be adopted as part of the strategy for recovery of wild populations.  These guidelines compliment detailed plans developed by regional zoo association (in our case EAZA) Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs), which ensure a greater focus toward threatened species. Successful conservation efforts have saved at least 26 bird species and 6 ungulate species from extinction to date. These include the Arabian oryx and the Przewalski’s Horse, which are still with us because of far sighted ex-situ action.

Saving the addax - one of the rarest species you've never heard of

I’ve just returned from Tunisia were RZSS is collaborating on the recovery of another Critically Endangered species - the addax.  This stunning white antelope is native to the Sahara desert and is on the brink of extinction in the wild. The latest estimates are 30-90 mature animals remaining across its native range, with a decreasing trend. Have you ever even heard of it, despite its megafaunal status? It is clear for this species that ex-situ action is now a necessary part of recovery. We also need to protect the animals that remain in the wild. Conservation breeding is not just a question of bunging a few animals into an enclosure, however. It’s a long-term commitment that requires vision, collaboration, resources, expertise and planning.

Above: Addax were reintroduced to Tunisia in the late 1980s - photo by Marie Petretto | Marwell Wildlife

For addax there are now around 7,000 animals in captivity – but what are the steps to recovery in the wild? Well, for one thing, captive breeding requires high levels of collaboration.  Breeding programmes typically involve many institutions. These groups work together to ensure populations are managed to a high standard, while maximising genetic diversity for the long term. Addax in zoos, like many other species, are managed through established captive breeding programmes in North America (SSP) and Europe (EEP). We are currently working on a project which includes Marwell Wildlife, Al Ain Zoo, the DGF Tunisia (Tunisian Ministry responsible for protected area management), San Diego Zoo Global and a wide number of other partners to understand how best wild, semi-wild, reintroduced and zoo captive populations can be managed together. This will allow us to better inform the global management of addax and help guide future conservation translocation efforts to enhance the chance of survival for the species. The entire global captive population was founded with 15 individuals. In such extreme situations, strong collaborations are vital for effective decision-making.

RZSS and captive management

RZSS manages a number of captive breeding programmes, all of which involve multiple partners. For the Scottish wildcat, we’re using cutting edge genetic analysis to manage both hybridisation and genetic diversity across network of >30 different captive holders. In this way, we hope to ensure that a robust population can be re-released into the wild. 

At the smaller end of the scale, for the past three years we have worked with pine hoverfly. This year, with the species on the brink of extinction in the UK, and with the agreement of the whole hoverfly conservation community, we’ve taken the plunge to try and raise these animals in captivity. It’s a risky operation. These guys are as endangered as wildcats. There are only estimated to be around 50 remaining and arguably we may already be too late.  

This species is much more low maintenance in terms of space and equipment required than a large mammal. Captive breeding this rare species, however, is still a mammoth effort. Moreover, it will only be useful if there is good habitat to release pine hoverflies into. On that front, we work closely with the RSPB, Forest Research, The Cairngorms National Park Authority, National Museums Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage, and the Malloch Society.

RZSS pine hoverfly captive breeding programme

Above: Pine hoverfly in the RZSS captive breeding facility - photo by Jon-Paul Orsi

Taking action and planning for the future

RZSS has been instrumental in the recovery of many threatened species and we’re also involved in crafting plans for others such as dama gazelles, Pallas’s cat, and rockhopper penguins. But you can’t just learn to look after a new species overnight; it requires a lot of expertise and takes time. Unfortunately, there is sometimes a tendency amongst the conservation community to delay the difficult decision to bring individuals into captivity.  There are cases where we as a community have simply monitored until no more animals can be found. This is often likened to “counting the books while the library burns”.

Northern rockhopper penguins

Above: Rockhopper penguins on Alex Island with Nightingale Island in the background - photo by Antje Steinfurth

When it is time to act, having a good plan is crucial. Conservation breeding requires not just a good plan between institutions which care for the animals, but a strong vision for eventual transfer to the wild. This means availability of suitable habitat, removal of threats, and solid partnerships with governments and NGOs. There may also be a need to cycle animals between captivity and the wild in the short to medium term. This is embodied in the One Plan approach to zoo conservation, which RZSS firmly subscribes to.  

It's a long haul involving both successes to celebrate and less successful projects to learn from. On 1st May, we celebrated the return of beavers to Scotland after 10 years of reintroduction efforts, and we’re still really only at the start of that process. RZSS will continue to fight against extinction by remaining involved in as many proactive, strategic, multi-stakeholder conservation projects as we can. We will be making every effort to help stem the tide of extinction and hopefully celebrate many more successes along the way.

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