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Confinement or Conservation? The role zoos play in the conservation movement

The popularity of zoological institutions has been steadily declining in recent years, as public perception and approval of keeping animals in captivity decreases (Whitworth, 2012). This has lead to an evolution in the role of zoos, with many zoos moving away from strictly entertainment based businesses towards a more conservation focused, globally connected industry (Barongi et al., 2015). All members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) are now required to set conservation-relevant goals (Barongi et al., 2015). As anthropogenic threats to biodiversity in natural ecosystems, such as habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species, and over-exploitation of natural resources, continue to expand (Miller et al., 2004), virtually all ecosystems are undergoing catastrophic declines in their natural species. This is emphasised in Living Planet Index’s latest report, indicating that vertebrates have declined by as much as 58% between 1970 and 2012 (WWF, 2016). It is clear that it will not be possible to halt this decline without pursuing a range of conservation approaches. In this, collection-based institutions can play a significant role in the ex-situ conservation of many species worldwide (Bowkett, 2009).


For species whose habitat is severely threatened, ex-situ populations (outside of their natural habitat) can be maintained in zoos, acting as “arks” or reservoir populations (Rabb, 1994). Global captive breeding programs of such populations for reintroduction into their natural habitat have played a key role in the recovery of at least 17 species whose threat level has been reduced in North America, including the black-footed ferret (Howard et al., 2016) and Californian condor (Conde et al., 2011). Furthermore, the global network provided by the WAZA for the transfer of genetic material between zoological institutions assists in maintaining the genetic diversity of otherwise fragmented populations (Bowkett, 2009), retaining maximum heterozygosity and adaptive potential, avoiding inbreeding, and maintaining reproductive health of these populations (Howard et al., 2016) (Ivy, 2016).


Zoos provide unique opportunities for conservation-relevant research, benefitting not only captive populations but also the conservation management of natural populations and ecosystems. Zoos provide easy access to individuals and populations long-term, allowing researchers to attach significant life-history context to data and samples that would be unavailable from wild populations, due to inaccessible environments, cryptic behaviour of some species, and the possible impacts studies pose to animals in the wild (Barongi et al., 2015). Furthermore, the skills and knowledge acquired in terms of small populations management are critical for the protection of threatened populations in their natural ecosystems (Barongi et al., 2015).


Possibly the most important role zoos play in their contribution to conservation is the potential they play for the education and engagement of the public. Human lifestyle choices are driving the current declines seen in populations worldwide, and a revolution of humans’ behaviour is necessary to halt this decline (Barongi et al., 2015). While many people place an innate value on nature, others need to be convinced of the importance of conserving biodiversity. Due to urbanisation, more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities, a statistic that is likely to increase in coming years (Miller et al., 2004). Zoos provide an opportunity to engage urban populations with living organism in a way they would be unable to experience in their day-to-day lives (Rabb, 1994). In fact, more than 700million people visit WAZA affiliated zoos and aquariums yearly, giving zoos a unique opportunity to influence this large audience in pro-environmental and conservation behaviours, to bring about the attitude-shift needed to halt the worldwide decline of species seen today (Barongi et al., 2015). As such, many zoos have incorporated conservation messages in signs, presentations and campaigns situated around their facilities in order to engage visitors, and encourage their support of conservation goals (Barongi et al., 2015).


A wide range of conservation actions are required to halt the ongoing extreme rate of biodiversity decline seen throughout the world today. Here zoological institutions play an important role, providing reservoir populations and allowing for captive breeding programs, while also engaging the public in conservation projects and pro-environmental behaviours. Furthermore, they provide access to individuals for research purposes that may be otherwise unattainable from wild populations.





Barongi, R., Fisken, F.A., Parker, M. & Gusset, M. (eds) (2015). Committing to Conservation: the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy. Gland, Switzerland: WAZA.


Bowkett, A.E. (2009). Recent Captive-Breeding Proposals and the Return of the Ark Concept to Global Species Conservation. Conservation Biology, Vol 23., no. 3, pp. 773-776.


Conde, D.A., Colchero, F., Jones, O.R., & Scheuerlein, A. (2011). An emerging role of zoos to conserve biodiversity. Science, Vol. 331, no. 6023, pp. 1390-1391.


Howard, J.G., Lynch, C., Santymire, R.M., Marinari, P.E. & Wildt, D.E. (2016). Recovery of gene diversity using long-term cryopreserved spermatozoa and artificial insemination in the endangered black-footed ferret. Animal Conservation, Vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 102-111.


Ivy, J.A. (2016). Ameliorating the loss of genetic diversity in captive wildlife populations. Animal Conservation, Vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 112-113.


Miller, B., Conway, W., Reading, R.P., Wemmer, C., Wildt, D., Kleiman, D., Monfort, S., Rabinowitz, A., Armstrong, B. & Hutchins, M. (2004). Evaluating the Conservation Mission of Zoos, Aquariums, Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museums. Conservation Biology, Vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 86-93.


Whitworth, A.W. (2012). An Investigation into the Determining Factors of Zoo Visitor Attendance in UK Zoos. PLoS One, Vol. 7, no. 1, e29839.


Rabb, G.B. (1994). The Changing Roles of Zoological Parks in Conserving Biological Diversity. American Zoologist, Vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 159-164.


WWF. (2016). Living Planet Report 2016. Gland, Switzerland: WWF.


Captive breeding: locking species up for good? – Emma Dawe


Is captive breeding a valuable tool in the conservation toolbox?

An ever expanding human population is putting increased pressure on endangered species and driving many to extinction. It is for this reason that the conservation of rare and endangered species has come to the forefront of our attention over recent decades. There are a number of strategies that exist to conserve these species at risk. The success of captive breeding as one such strategy for the conservation of endangered species is often contested. Here I discuss the issues, limitations and improvements surrounding captive breeding to come to a conclusion as to whether it is a valuable conservation tool or whether it is simply acting to ‘lock away’ species until inevitable extinction.

Captive breeding for conservation aims to rear sustained populations that will potentially be ready for reintroduction to the wild in the future (Williams & Hoffman 2009). It was originally used for the conservation of only the most critically endangered species (Araki et al. 2007) however its use has now spread to the restoration of many declining natural populations – this may explain why the emphasis on captive breeding in recent zoo and conservation biology literature has dramatically increased (Bowkett 2009) with one review suggesting that as many as 64% of species recovery plans in the US should employ captive breeding (Tear et al. 1993). Captive breeding is used in a number of conservation techniques, including: supplementation –captive-bred individuals are regularly added to an endangered natural population (Lynch & O’Hely 2001); supportive breeding –the size of a wild population is augmented by breeding part of that population in captivity and releasing the captive-bred progeny back into the natural population (Ryman and Laikre 1991); and reintroduction – an attempt to establish a species in an area that was once part of its historic range (IUCN 1998), using individuals from captive populations. It is worth mentioning also that captive breeding in zoos, although not necessarily geared towards reintroduction, plays hugely important roles in the education and research aspects of conservation management (Pinder & Barkham 1978).

Is it a success story?

In zoo captive populations, it is considered a success when the captive population continues to increase, without the addition of wild-caught animals (Pinder & Barkham 1978). The success of reintroduction to the wild involves a combination of factors: breeding by the first wild-born population after reintroduction, recruitment exceeding adult death rate after three years, an unsupported population of at least 500 and establishment of a self-sustaining wild population (Seddon 1999). Unfortunately, even though captive breeding and reintroduction has the potential to save many species from extinction, reintroduction programs using captive-bred individuals have very low success rates (Mathews et al. 2005). A meta-analysis by Williams and Hoffman (2009) found that only 13% of mammal reintroductions from captive-born populations were successful compared with 31% of translocations using wild-born individuals. The successes in saving species from extinction over the short-term are often well publicised (e.g. California condor –, Toone and Wallace 1994; Guam rail – Derrickson and Snyder 1992; black-footed ferret – Miller et al. 1996,) and it is easy to be caught up in the publishing bias (Jule et al. 2008) and forget that the large majority of reintroductions are failing. Perhaps these failures could be reversed with knowledge of the limitations facing captive breeding for conservation.

What is holding us back?

Failures in reintroduction after captive breeding can be attributed to three main factors: 1) meeting the costs and requirements of captive breeding, 2) genetic effects of captive breeding, and 3) premature use of captive breeding.

  1. Very few taxa have successfully bred in captivity owing to a lack of physiological and environmental requirements (Snyder et al 1996), needs that are often not met due to a lack of funds (Matthews et al. 2005). Derrickson and Snyder (1992) suggest that the costs of keeping animals in captivity can reach half a million dollars a year per species and in many cases securing enough funding to ensure that the captive environment closely resembles the natural environment, whilst also meeting animal welfare standards, is just not possible. The nature of keeping animals in captivity exposes them to a high disease risk (Snyder et al. 1996), as often they are kept in close proximity to species harbouring exotic diseases. To overcome this risk adds yet more costs to the process and so is rarely achieved effectively. If breeding in captivity is successful and the habitat requirements are matched to those experienced by the species in the wild there is still an issue when it comes to reintroduction of finding suitable habitat within the species’ known range in order to ensure the best chances of survival (Pinder & Barkham 1978).
  1. The genetic effects of captive breeding are numerous. As captive populations are generally small and comprised of related individuals, inbreeding depression becomes a problem (Ralls and Ballou 1986) leading to a high frequency of deleterious alleles that may be expressed as decreased fitness in the wild. Behavioural changes associated with captivity can very quickly become genetically selected for, often over few generations (Araki et al. 2007). This is domestication selection and can have large impacts on the fitness, and therefore sustainability, of a population upon reintroduction (Lynch and O’Hely 2001). Jule et al (2008) found that in captive-bred carnivores, those that were captive-born were more susceptible to starvation, predator avoidance and disease when reintroduced to the wild than those that were wild-caught, demonstrating that a life in captivity can negatively influence an animal’s ability to survive in the wild.
  1. Funding competition between in situ and ex situ conservation efforts often leads to captive breeding pre-empting efforts in the wild (Conway 1995). Captive breeding is frequently used prematurely to divert attention from the real issue causing a species decline, for example in the USA the captive breeding of black-footed ferrets was highly publicised, to hide the fact that all their habitat was being destroyed through other government programs (Miller et al. 1996). Similarly, millions of dollars are invested annually in the conservation of salmon in the north west USA instead of addressing the cause of the decline – habitat alteration due to hydropower dams (for more information see http://www.fws.gov/salmonofthewest/dams.htm). In reality, directing attention to the natural habitat and addressing the initial reasons facing a species requiring captive breeding for conservation may be more effective than attempting reintroduction from captive populations, else the same pressures will exist that created a problem in the first place. Sadly captive breeding is too commonly used as a ‘quick fix’ that ignores the problems rather than tackling them.

Addressing the issues

  1. Overcoming the financial costs and logistical restrictions of captive breeding is quite unlikely; however this issue could be addressed by minimising the need for captive breeding and instead focussing on in situ conservation efforts. In fact it has been shown that the cost of conserving mammals ex situ often exceeds the in situ costs even when there is intensive protection (Balmford et al. 1995). There has recently been a big increase in the capacity of zoos to contribute directly to in situ conservation (Zimmerman & Wilkinson 2007) largely due to increased availability of funds. These projects (for example Colchester Zoo and the UmPhafa Nature Reserve: http://www.umphafa.com/about/about-umphafa) are acting not only to improve or maintain suitable habitats in situ but also play a big role in educating the public worldwide about the importance of conservation.
  1. It is important to focus on minimising the genetic effects of captivity. This can be done through carefully planned breeding strategies that maintain diversity and reduce selection for the captive environment. Reducing the number of generations spent in captivity will lessen the number of generations that selection can act upon. Delaying reproduction in species where reducing the time in captivity is problematic can be achieved through the use of contraceptives and cryopreservation of germplasm (Williams & Hoffman 2009) however these methods are again costly. Another solution to maintain genetic diversity is to subdivide the total captive population (Ralls & Ballou 1986) and supplement these smaller subpopulations with wild immigrants to reduce inbreeding depression (Williams & Hoffman 2009), thus within-species diversity is maintained despite a loss of diversity within subpopulations.
  1. Many governments have funds available to allocate to conservation projects, however often the very need for conservation is fuelled by opposing government-led projects (for example, prairie-dog eradication programmes have reduced the black-footed ferret populations to captivity (Miller et al 1996)). The solution here lies in the responsibility of NGOs and private investors to contribute to conservation efforts globally.


There are situations in which captive breeding has played a pivotal role in preventing the extinction of species, however there are many more situations in which it has failed. It should be used as a last resort strategy in species recovery because of its large, negative genetic and phenotypic impacts. That is not to say it shouldn’t be used in conjunction with broader conservation measures. It is widely agreed that the best way to improve the success rate of reintroductions from captive breeding programs is to address the issue that drove the need for captive breeding. Conservation of ecosystems and habitats, and the removal or reduction of threats to endangered species will ensure that captive breeding doesn’t become the long-term solution it threatens to be. Until the in situ issues surrounding endangered species are addressed we risk locking these species up for good.




Araki H, Cooper B and Blouin MS (2007) Genetic effects of captive breeding cause a rapid, cumulative fitness decline in the wild. Science 318: 100-103.

Balmford A, Leader-Williams N and Green MJB (1995) Parks or arks: where to conserve large threatened mammals? Biodiversity and Conservation 4: 595-607.

Bowkett AE (2009) Recent captive-breeding proposals and the return of the ark concept to global species conservation. Conservation Biology 23(3): 773-776.

Conway W (1995) Wild and zoo animal interactive management and habitat conservation. Biodiversity & Conservation 4(6): 573-594.

Derrickson SR and Snyder NFR (1992) Potentials and limits of captive breeding in parrot conservation. In: Beissinger SR, Snyder NF (Eds.), New World Parrots in Crisis: Solutions from Conservation Biology. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC, pp. 133–163.

IUCN (1998) Guidelines for Re-introductions: Prepared by the IUCN/SSC Re-introduction Specialist Group. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland, and Cambridge, UK.

Jule KR, Leaver LA and Lea SE (2008) The effects of captive experience on reintroduction survival in carnivores: a review and analysis. Biological Conservation  141(2): 355-363.

Lynch M and O’Hely M (2001) Captive breeding and the genetic fitness of natural populations. Conservation Genetics 2(4): 363-378.

Mathews F, Orros M, McLaren G, Gelling M and Foster R (2005) Keeping fit on the ark: assessing the suitability of captive-bred animals for release. Biological Conservation 121(4): 569-577.

Miller B, Reading RP and Forrest S (1996) Prairie Night: Black-Footed Ferrets and the Recovery of Endangered Species. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC.

Pinder NJ and Barkham JP (1978) An assessment of the contribution of captive breeding to the conservation of rare mammals. Biological Conservation 13(3): 187-245.

Ralls K and Ballou J (1986) Captive breeding programs for populations with a small number of founders. Trends in Ecology & Evolution 1(1): 19-22.

Ryman N and Laikre L (1991) Effects of supportive breeding on the genetically effective population size. Conservation Biology 5: 325-329.

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Tear TH, Scott JM, Hayward PH and Griffith B (1993) Status and prospects for success of the endangered species act: a look at recovery plans. Science 262: 976–977.

Toone WD and Wallace MP (1994) The extinction in the wild and reintroduction of the California condor (Gymnogyps californianus). In: Olney PJS, Mace GM, Feistner ATC (Eds.), Creative Conservation: Interactive Management of Wild and Captive Animals. Chapman and Hall, London, pp. 411–419.

Williams SE and Hoffman EA (2009) Minimizing genetic adaptation in captive breeding programs: A review. Biological Conservation  142: 2388–2400.

Zimmermann A and Wilkinson R (2007) The conservation mission in the wild: zoos as conservation NGOs. Pages 303–321 in Zimmermann A, Hatchwell M, Dickie LA and West C, editors. Zoos in the 21st century: catalysts for conservation. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom.