Conservation breeding involves the careful and coordinated population management of a range of animal species through specific breeding programmes. These programmes ensure that there is rarely need to take animals from the wild and secures genetically healthy populations. Captive populations can be used as advocates for conservation and environmental issues by raising awareness and generating funds for in situ conservation, and could one day be returned to their natural habitat, should this be appropriate.
Although animals are best conserved in their natural habitat, the increasing number of threats from human encroachment means that there is often not enough habitat left to support these animals. Conservation breeding is therefore often the only way that these species will be saved. If a decision to bring an animal under ex situ management is left until extinction is imminent, it is often too late to save the species. It is therefore sometimes recommended by global conservation organizations such as the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) that species are bred in captivity to serve as reserve populations and prevent extinction. Conservation breeding has saved many species from extinction and reintroduced them back to the wild, including the Californian condor, the black-footed ferret and Przewalski’s horse (see Reintroduction)
Zoos and aquariums no longer work in isolation but act cooperatively alongside each other, and in so doing they have become an integral part of the conservation movement. It would be unwise to keep all individuals of one species in the same place, as that would increase the risk of losing the entire population to factors such as disease or natural catastrophe. However, the population benefits genetically if it is managed as a single whole, therefore, animals in separate zoos should be managed as part of one global population, which is kept genetically and demographically healthy.
There are different levels of organization of breeding programmes, from global and regional (e.g. Europe) down to individual institutional level. To ensure successful management between these differing levels there is extensive networking and cooperation between and within regions. Regular meetings are held to maintain contact, discuss pertinent issues and exchange relevant information.
In order to prevent the isolation of important animal populations in British and Irish zoos, all breeding programmes are managed at the European level and coordinated by EAZA (The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria). BIAZA is a member of and works closely with EAZA and this partnership greatly benefits the breeding of threatened species. The programmes that manage all of these animal populations are known as the EEPs (European Endangered Species Programmes) and ESBs (European Studbooks). EEPs are the most intensively managed type of breeding programme.
Taxon Advisory Groups, EEPs and ESBs
Before a species can be managed, it needs to be decided how important it is for conservation. EAZA has established Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) for each taxon (specific group of animals). These TAGs consist of zoo and aquarium professionals who have specialist knowledge of their particular species. The main role of TAGs is to develop Regional Collection Plans (RCPs) for particular taxa kept in EAZA collections which prioritize which species should be held and outline management recommendations for these species.
Through European Studbooks (ESBs) and European Endangered Species Programmes (EEPs), it is decided which animals best suit each other using carefully managed studbooks – both on a demographic and genetic level – and these are moved between collections to ensure the best possible matches. The animals involved in EEPs are usually not owned by any zoo, but are ‘on loan’ to each collection that assists with their management. Because of the diverse range of species involved in these programmes, each species needs its own specialist care. As a result the EEP assigns a ‘studbook keeper’, who has specialist knowledge of the particular animal species that he/she is assigned to manage and who helps to decide where each animal should be placed to best assist the programmme.
BIAZA Taxon Working Groups
BIAZA member collections are encouraged to join the relevant European programme for their species and BIAZA contributes to improved captive management, husbandry and welfare of species largely through the work of its Taxon Working Groups. BIAZA runs seven Taxon Working Groups (TWGs): Mammals, Birds, Reptiles and Amphibians, Terrestrial Invertebrates, Aquariums, Plants, and Native Species (more information on BIAZA Committees and Working Groups).