Zoos join to save periled species

Dramatic world population increaes forecast for the year 2000 have serious implications for man -- and for animals. The greatest population growth is expected in the underdeveloped nations, which have the highest concentrations of wildlife along with the least technological, legal, and financial means for preserving endangered species.

So concerned zoo keepers around the world are joining in what they consider to be a last-ditch effort to pick out species that can be saved -- and then work together to see that they are.

John Eisenberg, director for Animal Programs at Washington's National Zoological Park, warned the 650 delegates to the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA) meeting this week in Chicago that "no single zoo can of itself become a Noah's Ark." But he said that if zoos work together internationally, a great deal can be accomplished.

The greatest threat to wildlife today, outgoing AAZPa president Don Farst of the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Texas, told the Monitor, is "the rapid destruction of rain forests, velt country, and wild habitats to feed the growing world population." This destruction is bound to continue, he said, because there is no alternative "when you have a hungry peasant who needs another acre of land to feed two more children."

The answer, zoo directors here explained, is a crash conservation program based on improving zoo techniques for successful captive propagation of endangered species -- coupled with an education program to increase public support for the zoos' conservation efforts.

Already the AAZPA has developed a computerized International Speces Inventory System (ISIS) that keeps track of some 250,000 zoo animals. ISIS is overcoming the problem of inbreeding among small groups of animals which leads to high mortality rates and loss of genetic diversity. Using ISI, a zoo can quickly mate its animals with suitable, unrelated animals from distant zoos.

With ISIS, animals can be managed as if they were a single herd dispersed in different zoos around the world.

Dr. William Conway, general director of the New York Zoological Park, says the Bronx Zoo now has more than 300 breeding loan agreements with 40 other zoos. With such agreements, no money changes hands and offspring are shared between the participating zoos.

as more natural habitats disappear, Dr. Conway warns, such interzoo cooperation will become increasingly important. For instance, he estimates it will cost $49 million over the next 20 years to maintain the 760 Siberian tigers now in zoos worldwide -- a cost that must be shared internationally.He feels managing the tigers on a worldwide basis is the only way for the species to survive since there are only 300 Siberian tigers in the wild today -- and the 760 would need 4,000 square miles of prime habitat to support them.

Other problems remain even if zoos pool enough expertise, money, and space to preserve certain species. Mr. Farst says there must be careful control of breeding "so that we don't select for what man wants . . . [such as] elephants selected for ease of handling or tigers that are the largest." He says we should preserve species as they now are because "if the proper wild habitat had been preserved, these wild animals would go on and on."

As well, AAZPA members accept that some species are past saving due to limited available dollars and space. So choices must be made and "target species" agreed on. All insist that time is running out rapidly -- not only for the California condor, with only about 30 left in their native habitat, but for many hundreds of other species.

There have been successes. The Arabian oryx (an antelope), Farst says, "could cope with being hunted from camels, but not with being hunted from jeeps with machine guns." This beautiful animal that probably, when seen in profile, was the unicorn of legend, was only saved from extinction by zoos. Today the zoo-based herd has grown to more than 100, and the oryx is being reintroduced to safe areas in Africa.

Success stories like that depend on zoos changing -- as Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo has changed. Lincoln Park director Lester Fisher says the shift to emphasizing conservation and education means "fewer kinds of animals on display, but more potential breeding groups." His zoo has switched from African lions to Indian lions as part of "our commitment to a species that needs help." The result is a third generation of Indian lions at this lakeside city zoo, and a proud record of supplying other zoos around the world with healthy young lion cubs.

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