Zoos Try to Prevent Extinction

By Brain, Marshall | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, February 2, 2008 | Go to article overview

Zoos Try to Prevent Extinction


Brain, Marshall, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


When most people look at animals in a zoo, what they see are ... well, animals. It is fun to see animals like giraffes, elephants, lions and gorillas up close and personal. But zoos look at the animals in a very different way. For a zoo, many of the animals are like the animals on Noah's ark.

The problem that zoos are trying to solve is extinction. Many of the Earth's animals -- especially some of the biggest and most interesting ones like elephants -- are in the process of going extinct. For example, if you were to look at African elephants in the wild 25 years ago, there were about 2 million of them. Today there are fewer than 600,000. That is a huge drop despite the fact that people are working very hard to prevent it. The Asian elephant faces an even bigger problem. There are only about 40,000 animals left in the wild. The zoos are trying to keep these animals alive.

The way zoos preserve animals is by helping them to breed in captivity. Most zoos and aquariums in the United States belong to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, or AZA. The AZA has created a Species Survival Plan. More than 150 species are being bred in zoos. They are genetically diverse populations, so that even if the animals went extinct in the wild, zoos could maintain viable populations in captivity. Different zoos specialize in different species, and then they share their animals with each other.

The AZA has a list of all the animals in all of the zoos. Some are too old to breed, some are too young, but many of the animals are breeding age. The AZA looks at the animals that should be breeding together because of their genetic diversity. You don't want animals that are too closely related breeding with each other because that adds to the potential for genetic diseases. The animals that should be breeding are loaned around among all the zoos as though they are part of one giant herd.

Some animals breed so well in captivity that they actually have to be slowed down. For example, at the North Carolina zoo, all the zebras and all of the ostriches are female to keep them from reproducing. Other animals have been very hard to breed in captivity. The zoos work with the animals that are having problems and try to find better ways to help them breed.

There have been some real successes for the zoos. For example, red wolves had nearly gone extinct. There were only14 unrelated red wolves on the planet. Zoos were able to breed wolves in captivity, back up to a population of 200. Then they released some of the wolves into the wild in North Carolina forests. …

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