Conservation breeding is a complicated business. Most zoos aim to maintain the genetic variety within a species, so when it’s ‘reintroduced’, it’s the same as the original, wild population.
Occasionally, it’s necessary to take animals from the wild as part of the conservation strategy for that species. For example, where there’s a small wild population vulnerable to human and natural disaster, such as the golden lion tamarins, living in the Atlantic coastal rainforests of South America. Or Livingstone’s flying fox fruit bats, living on the Comoros Islands in the Indian Ocean. In these cases, we also implement field research, habitat conservation, and education programmes.
A recent development has been ‘biomaterial banking’.
To help safeguard the future of wild animals and plants, zoologists and botanists have been developing seed banks – taking genetic material from wild animals to store. If or when the species becomes extinct in the wild, there’s a possibility of using these banks to repopulate wild habitats.
Within Bristol Zoo Gardens we keep a large number of species that are linked to important conservation breeding programmes, particularly western lowland gorillas, Livingstone’s fruit bats, Partula snails, Philippine bleeding heart doves, Socorro doves, lemur leaf frogs, Asian box turtles and Potosi pup fish. Some of these species are extinct in the wild.
Reintroduction to the wild
Reintroducing animals to the wild is the ultimate aim of most captive breeding programmes. However to succeed, a fine balance has to be struck between protecting a habitat, and ensuring local people benefit from any conservation measures. In other words, we can’t simply lose valuable resources such as farming or grazing land to ‘wildlife refuges’.
It’s also really important to extensively research a habitat to make sure it’s still suitable for reintroduced animals. This requires regular, long-term monitoring to establish if a programme has been successful.
A success story
Here’s an example of a successful reintroduction programme.
1960 - The Arabian oryx (oryx leucoryx) is found wild in Oman in the Middle East. A few animals are held in captivity, but numbers are in steady decline, largely due to hunting. Estimates put the wild population at between 100 and 200 animals.
1962 - A British conservation team catches three wild oryx. These join others in the Phoenix Zoo, USA, to start a captive breeding programme.
1972 - Arabian oryx are hunted to extinction in the wild. Meanwhile, the herd is breeding well in Phoenix, and San Diego and Los Angeles zoos establish other new herds.
1978 - A small group of oryx is reintroduced into a reserve in Jordan.
1980-82 - 18 oryx are released in Oman, initially into a small enclosure, then a larger one, and ultimately into a wildlife reserve.
1984 - A second herd is released in Oman.
1994 - Oryx herds are now established in the wild in Jordan, Oman, Israel and Saudi Arabia, and being managed and monitored.