Conservation zoos have “powerful potential” to reverse extinction, according to a new study.
The zoos – along with aquariums, botanical gardens, and seedbanks – are crucial in bringing animals and even plants back from extinction, say scientists.
The team at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) studied 95 animals and plants that have been extinct in the wild since 1950.
After being driven to extinction in the wild they have only survived thanks to the care of zoological and botanical institutions.
However, conservation groups aim to successfully return these species back to their natural habitat to reclaim their wild status.
Most of these species have been driven to extinction as a result of human activities such as habitat destruction.
Lead author Donal Smith, from ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, said: “Without these dedicated organisations and their conservation efforts, we would have already lost species like scimitar-horned oryx, several Polynesian tree snails, and the yellow flowering toromiro.
“Thanks to decades of tireless work saving species, we have the opportunity to re-establish more populations in the wild; it’s imperative that conservation zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens and seedbanks are given the financial – and inter-governmental – support to do so.”
Through collaborative breeding programmes, fieldwork and research, ZSL has already helped return a number of extinct species to the wild.
They successfully returned Partula tree snails to the islands of French Polynesia and the scimitar-horned oryx to Chad.
They now plan to return the colourful sihek, a Guam kingfisher, to the wild later this year.
Mr Smith added: “But despite heroic efforts, failures are about as common as successes.
“Cases like the Catarina pupfish, sadly lost forever in 2012, remind us how fragile this space can be – whereas the European bison, once restricted to a small population under human care, is now thriving in the wild, offering an inspirational example of what pioneering conservation work can achieve.”
Experts at ZSL’s conservation Zoos in London and Whipsnade, work with 16 of the 38 extinct in the wild animal species – more than any other zoo in the UK.
All of the extinct in the wild species vary in their risk of total extinction, with some having only a handful of individuals left while others have several thousands.
Senior author John Ewen, a researcher at ZSL’s Institute of Zoology, explained: “Each extinct in the wild species is unique in how secure it is from extinction, so saving them requires specific actions tailored to each species.
“Contrast for example the high risk of extinction for the Socorro dove, in zoos for nearly 100 years with a current population of just 162 birds, to the more secure situation for species like the scimitar-horned oryx where the zoo population size is in the thousands and successful reintroductions are progressing well only 16 years after extinction in the wild.”
Mr Ewen added: “We have the ability to protect and save all of these species, but successful recoveries are made easier when we have more individuals in breeding programmes and a faster turnaround between loss from the wild and their return to it.”
Andrew Terry is ZSL’s director of Conservation and Policy and co-author of the study.
He said: “This study demonstrates how powerful conservation work can be in protecting species and tackling the biodiversity crisis, even in the most extreme cases.
“Alongside being led by science and managed by experts, its vital that these conservation breeding and release programmes are supported by funders and policy makers.
“We’ve proven how positive the outcomes can be for extinct in the wild species – we now need to see more investment in them.”
The study also shows the divide between animal and plant species. Despite there being an equal number of extinct in the wild plants and animals, there is more attention on getting animals back to their natural habitats.
Of the 12 species that have been returned, only two are plants.
The team have only tried to relocate 23 per cent of extinct in the wild plant species compared to 67 per cent of animal species.
Co-author Sarah Dalrymple, from Liverpool John Moores University, explained: “There are several reasons why extinct in the wild plant species might be less frequently the focus of translocations, including a lack of suitable individuals for planting and changes to their original habitat.
“However, attitudes are shifting, with more emphasis on botanic gardens working together and finding suitable wild homes away from the site of origin, offering great hope for future plant recovery.”
Axel Moehrenschlager, the Chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Translocation Specialist Group, and study co-author, said: “It will take Herculean collaborative action to return all extinct in the wild species to the wild, which is what all zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, and seedbanks globally would ultimately like to see.
“As the world addresses the threats of climate change and habitat loss, these organisations will continue to play vital roles in preventing further biodiversity loss and ultimately driving species recovery.”
The ZSL believes nature can recover and that conservation is most effective when driven by science.
They now call for science to guide all global decisions on environment and biodiversity and build a healthier future for wildlife, people and the planet.