Building Partnerships with Zoos and Aquariums

By Harrelson, David; Hutchins, Michael et al. | Endangered Species Bulletin, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Building Partnerships with Zoos and Aquariums


Harrelson, David, Hutchins, Michael, Diebold, Ed, Waddell, William, Wallace, Mike, Warmolts, Doug, Endangered Species Bulletin


Over the past 25 years, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) have become increasingly involved in conservation programs for imperiled species in North America. Both organizations are aware of the conservation of biodiversity as an issue of increasing national importance and rising public interest.

The AZA and the FWS recognize that "biodiversity," as an assessment of species richness or species decline, is a valid indicator of the integrity of ecosystems, regardless of the differences that might occur between definitions or the context of the term's use. Each organization has become aware that focusing on the conservation needs of individual species is usually inadequate for the conservation of biodiversity, given the increasing number of plants and animals threatened with extinction. Both the AZA and the FWS have begun the transition from a primarily species-based approach to a broader strategy that embraces ecosystems and habitat-based conservation as integral to maintaining biodiversity. In doing so, each has recognized the critical importance of partnerships for implementing landscape-based, multiple-species conservation and recovery strategies.

Over the past 10 years, this change in philosophy as well as tactics has been reflected within the activities of the FWS by the increasing number of listings that have included multiple species. A similar trend, incorporating multiple species conservation efforts and a habitat or ecosystems-based approach for endangered, threatened, and proposed species conservation and recovery is also evident. The recovery plans for Hawaiian plants and the species of Ash Meadows, Nevada, and the Mobile Bay Recovery Plan and Florida Everglades restoration efforts, are examples. A similar process of refocusing and redirecting conservation efforts to meet increasing challenges has been occurring within the AZA.

In 1981, a new tool called the Species Survival Plan, or SSP, was first employed in cooperative population management and conservation programs for selected species at North American zoos and aquariums. SSPs focus the efforts of many institutions into a single partnership program for conservation through research, education, reintroduction, and field efforts. For U.S. species, SSPs are always linked to FWS recovery plans. Each SSP is carefully designed to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining captive population that is genetically diverse, demographically stable, and, if necessary, suited for reintroduction into the wild. (All native species SSPs include maintaining populations suitable for reintroductions.) SSPs have been developed for such North American species as the Puerto Rican crested toad (Peltophryne lemur), Attwater's greater prairie chicken (Tympanuchus cupido attwateri), Wyoming toad (Bufo hemiophrys baxteri), black-footed ferret (Mustela nigripes), red wolf (Canis rufus), California condor (Gymnogyps californianus), Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi), and thick-billed parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha). Other species being managed for recovery purposes include the Guam rail (Rallus owstoni), the Micronesian kingfisher (Halcyon c. cinnamomina), and Mona/Virgin Islands boa (Epicrates monensis). There is every likelihood that additional SSPs for imperiled native species will be developed in the future. Many other species are not currently in formal SSPs but are included in AZA member-institution conservation initiatives, such as recovery programs for the American burying beetle (Nicrophorus americanus), Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides argyrognomon lotis), and Florida manatee (Trichechus manatus).

Successful conservation programs often require detailed knowledge of a species' ecology, reproductive biology, genetics, behavior, nutrition, and diseases. Consequently, modern zoos and aquariums have invested extensively in scientific research to develop species-specific information in these areas. …

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