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Endangered Species: Zoos and conservation

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Cheryl Santa Maria
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, August 21, 2013, 3:01 PM -

For some, zoos are controversial. 

A recent online discussion on the Ted website, for example, generated more than 100 comments on the topic -- some positive, others negative. 

"The beauty of zoos is their ability to educate the public about the animals, what it means to be endangered, and the necessity of conservation. I think zoos are able to demonstrate the urgency and the necessity of action in a very real and inspiring way," Christina Thommes writes.

Bre Senate disagrees.

"I dislike zoos immensely," she writes.

"I think they could be made better if their practices were not so anthropocentric in theory. Our zoo systems should create more opportunities for education rather than simply displaying animals in boxes, which is largely what my experience with zoos have been all about." 

While the debate rages on, there's one thing that nearly everyone can agree on.

Human activity, climate change, disease and loss of habitat space are putting animal and plant species at risk, and something needs to be done.

In July, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) painted a dismal future for the biodiversity of the planet. Nearly 21,000 species are now facing extinction -- 4,807 more than the previous year.

It's a statistic that Jane Smart, Global Director of the IUCN Biodiversity Conservation Group, called "alarming".

"We must use this knowledge to its fullest – making our conservation efforts well targeted and efficient - if we are serious about stopping the extinction crisis that continues to threaten all life on Earth,” she said in a statement released in early July.

Zoologists and animal experts are acutely aware of this critical situation, and numerous programs have been set up to help resolve it -- in addition to fighting social stigmas that some associate with zoos.

Wild bactrian camels have benefited from conservation efforts spear-headed by zoos

Wild bactrian camels have benefited from conservation efforts spear-headed by zoos

The Species Survival Program (SSP), for example, collaborates with global partners to conserve and protect critically endangered species.

SSP is spear-headed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a consortium whose members include the Montreal Biodome, the Calgary Zoo, Vancouver Aquarium and Quebec's Zoo de Ganby.

"AZA represents more than 200 institutions in the United States and overseas, which collectively draw more than 182 million visitors every year," a rep from the association says.

"These institutions met the highest standards in animal care and provide a fun, safe, and educational family experience. In addition, they dedicate millions of dollars to support scientific research, conservation, and education programs."

The Vancouver Aquarium has helped countless endangered species through various conservation and research programs.

"Aquariums (and zoos) can play a critical role in animal conservation efforts because such institutions provide experts in marine biology and wildlife – the very experts who have the knowledge and information to help guide conservation efforts," the aquarium says.

"As a non-profit organization, the Vancouver Aquarium is also committed to education – raising awareness among the public as to how they are connected with aquatic life, and what role guests can play in aquatic conservation. By offering guests an opportunity to engage with these animals up close, aquariums can help create those connections and provide that education."

Initiatives led by the Vancouver Aquarium have led to breeding programs for two critically endangered frog species -- the Oregon-spotted frog and the Rocky Mountain population of northern leopard frogs.

Pictured: A northern leopard frog. Courtesy: Andy McLemore / Flickr

Pictured: A northern leopard frog. Courtesy: Andy McLemore / Flickr

The pristine ecosystem within the Howe Sound  research and conservation area, just north of metropolitan Vancouver, serves as a “living laboratory” for aquarium researchers, the aquarium adds.

"[They] monitor the well-being of this area, home to 650 species of fish, invertebrates, and other aquatic life. As part of this effort, the research team seeks divers each year to participate in diving surveys to monitor the health of local lingcod and rockfish populations – two species whose numbers had declined precipitously during the last century, and have only recently begun to rebound."

The Denver Zoo, which is also a member of SSP, has participated in 594 conservation projects in 62 countries between 1996 and 2012.

"In 2012 alone, the Denver Zoo participated in 101 projects in 18 countries and more than $1.5 million in funds was spent by the zoo in support of animal conservation in the field," says Richard P. Reading, Ph.D., vice president for conservation of the Denver Zoological Foundation.

For the past 15 years, the zoo has worked to conserve fresh water fishes in Madagascar.

"We have maintained populations of several of these species at the zoo that are now extinct in the wild - so today, those species only occur at Denver Zoo," Dr. Reading says, "and we working to restore habitats so we can reintroduce those fish back into their native habitats." 

Another conservation project is being carried out in Mongolia's Gobi desert, where efforts are being taken to help wild bactrian camels.

"Gaining knowledge and awareness is key to conservation efforts," the Vancouver Aquarium says.

"The more the public learns about endangered animals, the more they can understand their role in helping to conserve them."

WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP

  • Donate to a worthwhile cause. The Toronto Zoo, for example, has established an Endangered Species Reserve Fund that allocates about $100,000 a year to various global conservation projects. 
  • Shop smart. "The Vancouver Aquarium Ocean Wise program is one simple way that people can help make good choices for our oceans," the Vancouver Aquarium says. "Look for the Ocean Wise symbol anywhere or visit oceanwise.ca for more information." 
  • Participate in local conservation programs. The Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup, a joint initiative between Vancouver Aquarium and WWF, works to mobilize cleanups to remove shoreline litter that harms and entangles aquatic animals. Registration is underway for this fall’s cleanup, which takes place from Sept. 21 to 29. Sign up by visiting the shoreline cleanup website
  • Be creative. "People can help conserve endangered species in numerous ways," Dr. Reading says, and offers these suggestions:
    -- Work to influence and elect politicians to better conserve endangered animals and their habitat
    -- Reduce, reuse, and recycle to limit your impact on the planet
    -- Make your home more wildlife friendly  
    -- Volunteer for conservation organizations
    -- Stay informed about the impacts facing endangered species and methods helping to mitigate those impacts



Next week, we'll talk about de-extinction. Researchers believe they can bring extinct species back -- but should they? We'll explore this controversial topic on Wednesday.

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