Building the Ark, Outfitting the Rafts

By Ron Skylstad

I just received the October 2013 issue of National Geographic, which contains an article about zoos and wildlife conservation entitled “Building the Ark.”

It’s an interesting article in that it highlights some of the issues facing both conservation and the mission of many zoos in North America, specifically the conflict faced by many zoos regarding keeping/maintaining species that attract crowds–and, ultimately, funding–or focusing their attention and energy on species that are truly in need of some sort of  intervention, but which the public wouldn’t necessarily pay money to come see:

Robert Lacy, a conservation biologist at the Chicago Zoological Society, says that zoos are going to have to make “some really difficult prioritization decisions.  Do you save a small number of big furry things, because that’s what will draw the public?  Or do you focus on a whole lot more little creatures that it’s hard to get the public interested in, but you might be able to save a whole lot more of for the same amount of money?”

Others argue that the situation is becoming so dire in the 21st century that zoos are going to have to fundamentally rethink their mission.  Why devote any resources to species that are doing fine on their own?

It’s a difficult question, to be sure.  It also, I believe, functions from a somewhat limited perspective on who can participate in and contribute to the conservation of the planet’s biodiversity.

The use of the term “ark” in these sorts of discussions is an obvious one: a vessel used for the saving of something from peril.  Within its walls we tend to think of a vast menagerie of animal species, each in its own place and each taken care of according to its specific needs until the threat has passed and it can once again be released to roam and run and reproduce.

By nature arks can be quite large and resource-intensive.  The author speaks to this, but also mentions that smaller zoos are increasingly participating in conservation work:

The Miller Park Zoo, in Bloomington, Illinois, is one of the smallest accredited zoos in the country–just four aces.  It has bred red wolves and is hoping to figure out how to breed an endangered sub-species of squirrel known as the Mount Graham red squirrel.

“It’s a small animal that doesn’t require a huge amount of space,’ says Jay Tetzloff, superintendent of the zoo.  “And one of the zookeepers looked at me and said, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to be the first zoo to breed that animal?’”

One of the limitations of an ark, however, is that it is…well, limited.  There is only so much space, so much energy, so much time that can be invested to keep the boat and its inhabitants afloat, especially in an age now being dubbed as the planet’s sixth great extinction event.  Even if a facility decides to forgo working with a single rhino species in exchange for half a dozen amphibian species, is that enough?  Is that act successfully stemming the tide of extinction, or are we just trying to bail out the Titanic with a few plastic pails?

The article’s dialogue of conservation focused solely on the ability of zoos to conserve imperiled species.  In this respect it forces a discussion that views zoos as the only agents of conservation.  In this context the dialogue can only pertain to the work of an ark: how do we modify it, how do we fund it, how do we break down one wall and shift room for something else?

Granted, these are all important questions, and arks do accomplish amazing conservation work.  But to limit the possibility of such work to arks alone is short-sighted: not even the Titanic–a ship that was supposedly too big to fail and “couldn’t be sunk”–went to sea without life rafts.

Life rafts are vessels that allow for the survival of one–or several–inhabitants.  Like arks, rafts definitely have their own set of limitations, but they are also much more maneuverable and potentially able to respond more quickly to potential threats or changes in course.

It was marine aquarium hobbyists who, tinkering with saltwater systems in their basements and garages, pioneered the aquaculture of corals.  This information was then shared and caretakers, both public and private, have used it to not only more successfully care for and propagate corals in captivity, but to help restore reefs in the wild.  Zookeepers and curators who work with parrot and toucan species realized long ago the value of working with private hobbyists in the attempts to successfully breed and rear a number of species.

These are examples of the mutually beneficial relationship arks and rafts can have, utilizing the strengths and skill sets that each has to offer.  Zoos have capacity and resources.  Hobbyists can be flexible in developing breeding/rearing protocols.  Hobbyists aren’t subject to the whim of a public who wants to view charismatic fauna: they can dedicate an entire closet or room to dozens of aquariums or terrariums for obscure and largely forgettable (by the majority of the public, anyway) frogs or fish.  Hobbyists value the keeping of such fauna so much so that they invest vast quantities of their own personal time and money into their care and husbandry.

Right now, as a class, the world’s most threatened group of animals is probably amphibians.  According to the IUCN, which maintains what’s know as the Red List, more than a third of the world’s frog, toad, and salamander species are at risk of extinction.  Amphibians lack even the marginal charisma of a condor or a red wolf, and they clearly are no match for a big-draw zoo species such as pandas or lions….  But there are advantages to being small.  For one thing a whole population of amphibians can be preserved in less space than that required by a single three-quarter-ton rhinoceros….

Arks and rafts have traditionally sailed their own courses, albeit it on the same sea.  Occasional partnerships have occured, and in some instances the results were successful…in others, not so much.  But if we are truly committed to the conservation of the planet’s biodiversity, I believe it will take both arks and rafts working together to accomplish the task, especially when it comes to amphibians.  Each has a role to play, if they are willing, and TWI is passionate about helping catalyze and foster those partnerships.

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