Species Survival Plan
A) A new television reality program set on an island in the Pacific
B) A book about how to live through an Arizona summer
C) A cooperative breeding and conservation program the Phoenix Zoo participates in to help ensure a future for highly endangered animals
Did you guess C? You're right! The story of the SSP is a story of challenge, hopes, tension, suspense and adventure worthy of any reality show, and you might say the "pilot episode" – one of the greatest survivor stories ever – was set right here at the Phoenix Zoo. We jump into this adventure with "Operation Oryx" and a startling discovery on the Arabian Peninsula in 1972: the last wild Arabian oryx had been shot.
Fortunately a handful of Arabian oryx – the "world herd" - were safely settled at the Phoenix Zoo and steadily gaining ground in their battle against extinction. The Zoo's breeding program was so successful, in fact, that by the mid-1970's, there were enough Arabian oryx to begin sending some to other zoos to establish more breeding herds. Then in 1979, a group of Arabian oryx were sent from Phoenix to Oman to begin a breeding program in part of the historic range of the wild Arabian oryx. In the decades since then, breeding the descendants of the first "world herd" with animals from private herds in the Middle East, the total world population of Arabian oryx today is roughly 1, 600 in dozens of sites around the world. Started in 1981 and administered by the American Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Species Survival Plan programs incorporate strategies learned from "Operation Oryx" for 161 species of endangered or threatened animals from all around the world.
The Phoenix Zoo actively participates in SSP programs for 29 of those species, ranging from the African wild dog and Bali mynah to the Rhinoceros hornbill and White rhinoceros. Asking some simple questions uncovers stories of both victory and disappointment as we learn more.
Are SSP's just about captive breeding?
No. "The basic idea, " notes Zoo Curriculum and Content Specialist Gabby Hebert, "is to create a genetically diverse and stable population in captivity to ideally re-populate the wild with that stock. For many species, though, that isn't possible." SSP goals also include public awareness, education, research, training for wildlife professionals, developing and testing technologies for both breeding and field conservation, and, in the best cases, reintroducing species into restored or secure natural habitat. Gabby explains, "When an animal is part of an SSP, there is extra funding that goes toward research and conservation efforts like habitat restoration and working with local people (in the species' natural habitat) to help them live and make money without destroying the habitat of the animal."
The American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) coordinates the SSP's. For each species, a master plan records and designs the "family tree" of a managed (captive) population to maximize genetic diversity and achieve a stable population in that species. Genetic diversity is important. Animals are sometimes transferred between participating zoos, maintaining natural social grouping where possible. Since there is a limitation on available space in zoos, coordinators have to choose which individual animals not to breed, too, as part of a SSP. If you'd like to try your hand at the complexities of this kind of planning, play the Minnesota Zoo's "matchmaker" game online.
Are there SSP's for every endangered species?
Sadly, no, and unlike the contestants in a television show, no animals have "immunity" against extinction. The World Conservation Union's (IUCN) 2004 Red List of threatened species cites 1, 101 species of mammals, 1, 213 species of birds, 304 species of reptiles, 1, 770 species of amphibians, and 800 species of fish – far too many for the world's zoos, aquariums, and conservation organizations to accommodate or manage.
How are animals chosen to participate in a SSP? A team of experts analyzes the status of the animal in the wild, how much holding space there is within zoos, which animals have the interest of qualified professionals with time to dedicate toward their conservation, what animals are currently in captivity, and what the genetic makeup of those animals in captivity is. In some cases well-known representative or "flagship species" like the Giant panda or Lowland gorilla are given SSP status because they can increase interest in and support for the SSP program, which benefits other animals as well.
Zoos also must apply to become part of a SSP and have to show they have both space for the animals and resources and money to provide for them before they can receive permission to breed animals in a SSP.
What SSP animals does The Phoenix Zoo participate in breeding?
Besides the successful Arabian oryx program, the Zoo participates actively in the breeding programs of the Thick-billed parrot, Spectacled bear, Radiated tortoise, Rhinoceros hornbill, orangutan, Crowned pigeon, Mhorr gazelle, Mexican gray wolf, and Black-footed ferret. "Just because you are part of an SSP, it doesn't mean you will be actually breeding it, " Gabby Hebert advises. "We are actually holding many of the animals here so other places can breed." That is the case for the five male African wild dogs – all brothers - who recently came to the Phoenix Zoo, though one or more of them may be selected to breed in the future.
The Mexican gray wolf is another Phoenix Zoo survival story with a hopeful, happy ending. Until the 1950's, Mexican gray wolves roamed the forests of the Southwest. Conflicts with ranching and other human activities led to federal, state and private campaigns to get rid of the wolves. By 1970, the Mexican gray wolf was all but extinct in the wild. This had a harmful effect on the ecosystem. In 1976, the Mexican wolf gained endangered status under the Endangered Species Act of 1973. In 1994, the Phoenix Zoo partnered with other zoos, the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Arizona Game and Fish Department to rebuild the population of Mexican gray wolves. In 1996, Chico and Rosa, the Zoo's firs pair of wolves, gave birth to two male and one female pup. In 1999, Chico's new mate Eureka delivered another pup.
In March 1998, 11 captive-reared Mexican wolves were released into the Blue Range Wolf Recovery Area (BRWRA) in eastern Arizona. Since then, more wolves have been returned to the wild, and in 2002, the first wild litter from a wild-born parent was born. Currently there are approximately 300 Mexican gray wolves, all born in captivity, in 49 zoos in the Unites States and Mexico, and roughly 50 wolves again roam in wilderness areas of Arizona and New Mexico.
Why is it important to maintain genetic diversity in SSP populations?
The key to the health of an animal population is to breed for a variety of genes. This enables the species to adapt to changing habitat conditions or threats like disease, helping some animals to survive and maintain the species. Over many generations, diversity in the captive gene pool dwindles. Then SSP managers have to make difficult decisions about how to introduce unique genes into the population.
"They can always look to the international population to see if there are animals that can be brought over and mixed, " says Gabby. The SSP is a program within North American zoos; other international zoo associations have similar breeding and management programs. The European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, for example, operate the European Endangered Species Programme, the "most intensive type of population management for a species kept in EAZA zoos." As with the SSP, each EEP has a coordinator (someone with a special interest in and knowledge of the species concerned, who is working in an EAZA zoo or aquarium)" who is assisted by a Species Committee.Another way to bring new genetic information into the captive population is by capturing an animal from the wild and breeding it, but this puts increased strain on an already endangered wild population. Gabby continues,
"The question of taking another animal from the wild becomes species-specific; because it could be that you take an animal out of the wild and definitely damage that wild population that's already hurting." But this has to be balanced against the benefits to the population as a whole.
Can all SSP species be successfully reintroduced into their natural habitat?
No, that isn't always possible. Lack of genetic diversity, a too small population, and continuing destruction of habitat are just three of the factors limiting the reintroduction of a species to the wild. The call of a flock of Thick-billed parrots sounds like people laughing, but there isn't yet a happy ending to their story. One of two species of parrot once native to Arizona, the Thick-billed parrot is one of the most endangered birds in the world. The last time a large flock of Thick-billed parrots was seen north of the Mexican border was 1938. Thick-billed parrots' main defense against predators like raptors is using their complex flocking patterns to confuse their attackers. Human hunting of these parrots reduced their numbers significantly, so the parrots could no longer defend themselves against predators and became extinct in Arizona and New Mexico.
A small group of Thick-billed parrots were reintroduced in the wild in 1983, but the captive-reared birds didn't recognize predators and never learned to flock to elude predators, so no viable population was established. Later results haven't been completely successful. With a population of less than 250 mature birds and an estimated decrease of 25% in the next three years, the Thick-billed parrot faces a high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future. Even with a SSP, the question remains if Thick-billed parrots will ever "laugh" in the wild again.
"Zoos must also commit to the long-term nurturing of painstakingly chosen species which will have no reasonable hope in nature and whose passing would be . . . an unacceptable loss to our planet's heritage, " states William Conway, director of the New York Wildlife Conservation Park.1
What else can zoos do to help with the growing problem of endangered species?
"As zoos struggle to define what they are supposed to be and do, they're finding an ever-greater role in saving animals in the wild, " says Michael Hutchins, director for conservation and science at the American Zoo and Aquarium Association. "Zoos are becoming protectors rather than collectors of wildlife." Zoos are no longer tied just to their communities; more and more, zoos will connect their exhibits with conservation programs in the wild. The Phoenix Zoo is busy stepping into this expanding role. To find out how you, too, can help make survival possible for more species, visit http://www.phoenixzoo.org/learn/conservation_efforts.aspx
 Fiona Sunquist, "End of the Ark?" http://www.nwf.org/internationalwildlife/zoos.html 3/1/2006