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Conservation

Zoos for the endangered and even extinct?

by Dave Armstrong 14 Oct 2013
Zoos for the endangered and even extinct?

This beautiful little toad is extinct under its native waterfalls, so is being bred in Cincinnati and Toledo, ready for attempts at re-introduction; Toad image; Credit: © Shutterstock

Sumatran rhino, like many large mammals in Indonesia, are very reduced in numbers. Artificial insemination of zoo females is possibly the way forward to ensuring there is at least some population, although in the wild, deforestation will complete the recent demise of the unique Dicerorhinus sumatrensis. Dr Terri Roth is charged with delivering the goods in Cincinnati Zoo at the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife.

After an early failure to prevent the passenger pigeon becoming extinct, The Bronx, of all places, was the zoo responsible for the essential conservation for the US- they saved the American bison. If you think about it though the ideology has become more complicated. As the lights go out for many species the world over, do zoos continue with more common animals that the public pay to see. ?

It's a question of funding. The money comes in from turnstiles that fill for a sight of a giant panda or a big cat. Would people come to see a small moth or even a mouse, no matter how much of an achievement its survival was? Can a whole population of rare frogs be maintained in the same space as one Sumatran rhino?

(The answer is YES!)

The Wildlife Conservation Society run the Bronx Zoo. Half the world population of tiny Kihanzi spray toads live there. They are a "new" species, only discovered in eastern Tanzania just before 2000, just before Chytrid fungus swept through East Africa. When researchers returned to check the situation, they found only 3 specimens in 2004. None have been found since. Luckily around 500 had already been found spray-zone homes in the Bronx and Toledo zoos. They are now the only population left, as the species only existed over a small river area near the gorge of the Kihanzi. This is now diverted to a hydroelectric dam!

That success is shown up by the several thousand toads in the US and a new giant sprinkler for the actual gorge, leaving a hundred re-colonists to be taken there in 2012. But the Chinese yellow-headed box tortoise, Cuora aurocapitata, may not be so lucky. There are 150 left, so the Bronx Wildlife conservation Society took up the gauntlet to breed half of the world's most endangered turtles. We await the news on the 24 species and of course how the box tortoise survives.

Hawaii has really suffered from IAS (invasive alien species) and no bird more so than the now extinct po'ouli from Maui. This was the black-faced honeycreeper, Melamprosops phaeosoma. Around 2005, the species died out. One male was netted and then died, leaving his living cells, from the eye, to be cultured. Along with many other endangered species, this is the only chance for future genetics to provide a literal "new-life line." For now though, he and his ilk, are extinct.

In Japan, the hope has often been to recreate the mammoth, from Siberian frozen animals' cells, while in more sober research, 23 institutions worldwide contribute genetic and fund-raising resources to the Frozen Ark Project. They maintain frozen cells of many varied groups from invertebrates to the 1000 endangered mammals that are thought likely to die out within this century.

And when these genetic vials of cells are opened, we will naturally need a zoo's resources to maintain the first living population of a newly extant animal, whenever that will be.


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