Increasingly zoo experts are questioning the effectiveness of isolated ex situ breeding for conservation. Some have argued along these lines that “there are far too many endangered species and not nearly enough space to breed them all in captivity and, in many cases, far too little habitat remaining in which to reintroduce them. In addition, reintroduction programs are difficult and expensive, and they amount to treating the symptoms of species loss rather than the causes”. As a result of these realizations, many zoo experts have become wary of the “zoos as arks” metaphor, once again focusing on the sustainability of zoo populations within zoos. — Excerpt from The Ethics of Captivity by Lori Gruen (2014)

Yes, captivity breeding is a hard topic to discuss. For some reason, it drives very emotional reactions. But remember: ‘It’ is never 100% white or black. Then we have to understand what shade(s) of gray we are looking at, before endorsing a practice as unconditionally justifiable –nothing is really. Recently there is a surge in silencing people who dare asking/talking. That should not happen. It takes true courage these days to ask uneasy important questions as everybody seems entitled to an opinion (one that is not always informed). It should not be this way. We should rather be humble and compassionate, and stop shutting and hunting down those who raise legitimate concerns, or who are just asking. By understanding the nuances of these programs and their true outcomes, this is how we will be able to help those captive breeding programs to do really good things for the species.

There is an indisputable fondness of the public for captive breeding, and this might have to do with media bias: Reporters tend to write more about the programs that are both dramatic and successful.

You are less likely though to hear about captive breeding failures, even though they constitute the majority of them. The reality is that raising and breeding a wild animal in captivity is extremely challenging, and it’s even harder to release them successfully. It is so without even discussing the cost of it compared to in-situ conservation efforts to help species in difficulty… The reality is also that captive breeding justified by the argument that ‘it’ is for the good of the species is being used far too often by questionable organizations to give an air of respectability to their enterprise.

We are the first ones to praise the results of the few captive breeding programs that were well managed, well researched and that resulted in the recovery of species that were gone or about to (including black-footed ferrets, California condors, black robins, etc.). As well as we believe in the potential success of some ongoing captive breeding programs (such as the ones for amphibians). However, the truth is that ex-situ breeding programs should be considered as a case-by-case. These programs should be last and not be a by-default strategy –which is too often what happens. Why? From a conservation standpoint, there is so much to talk about (including prohibitive cost compared to in situ programs, low success, low ROI, welfare issues, genetic loss), but one important argument reason is that in effect ex-situ captive breeding can go against proper and effective conservation.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) itself holds that captive breeding should only be used as a last resort. They recognize that no amount of new blood introduced into an ecosystem to save a threatened species can fix the problems that are destroying the ecosystem in the first place or remove the threats facing the species. In one of the most expensive reintroduction programs ever, when captive-bred California condors were introduced to the wild, conservationists knew they had to be taught to avoid not only predators but power lines. What the conservationists didn’t realize was that the digestive juices in the condors’ stomach could digest lead shots. Even if the condor was protected from hunters, nothing could stop the birds themselves from eating the shot pellets found in carcasses and being stricken with lead poisoning. Steps needed to be taken to restrict all hunting in areas with condors.

Now, here is a short insightful high-level article to get you started on the topic:

Let the Bustards Be

When you’re witnessing a disaster like the current extinction crisis unfold, doing something feels better than doing nothing. That’s one reason captive breeding programs are so common-it’s difficult to stand by and watch a species careen toward oblivion. But a new study says our interventionist urges often lack scientific support and, in some cases, do more harm than good.

If you want to know more about this delicate topic then there is the scientific literature that goes with it… Go ahead and enjoy for instance Ark or park: the need to predict relative effectiveness of ex-situ and in situ conservation before attempting captive breeding by Dolman, P.M. & al. in the Journal of Applied Ecology (2015). Also, check the science work listed in our references below.

There is a lot of evidence out there at our disposal, a lot for us to learn about this issue, then become aware and incite those programs to improve and generally move in the right direction. Sharing real information is really caring…

References & Extended Bibliography

Ark or Park: The Need to Predict Relative Effectiveness of Ex situ and In situ Conservation Before Attempting Captive Breeding by Dolman, P.M. & al. in the Journal of Applied Ecology (2015)

Captivity Effects on Wide-ranging Carnivores by Clubb, R. & Mason, G. (2003)

Zoos and Eyes: Contesting Captivity and Seeking Successor Practices by Acampora, R. (2005)

Captivity for Conservation? Zoos at a Crossroads by Keulartz, J. (2015)

The Ethics of Captivity by Gruen, L (2014)

Sources of Stress in Captivity by Morgan, K. & Tromborg, C. in Applied Animal Behavior Science 102 262-302 (2007).

Ecological Ethics in Captivity: Balancing Values and Responsibilities in Zoo and Aquarium Research under Rapid Global Change by Minteer, B.A. & Collins, J.P. (2013)

Limitations of Captive Breeding in Endangered Species Recovery by Snyder, N. & al. (1996)

Captive Breeding – 2007 WWF Policy Statement


July 12th 2017 | by Claire O’Neill 

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