May 13, 2013

The Sixth Great Extinction: Zoos


Maggie: Endangered penguins in Madison, Wisconsin; a baby giraffe born in Los Angeles; and rare turtles hatch in Melbourne, Australia – all species being saved by zoos, which have become more than just a place for kids to see animals. Today, many zoos are a vital part of conservation and research, like the San Diego Zoo, which helped in one of the biggest success stories of species conservation. Thanks to drastic conservation efforts, like these breeding pens, the California Condors were brought back from the brink of extinction.

More than thirty years ago, only an estimated 22 California Condors were left in the wild because of illegal hunting and lead poisoning. So, conservationists did something they had never done before. They caught all 22 and started raising and breeding them in captivity. Handlers remove eggs from the condor’s nest so that the animals quickly reproduce. The baby condors are then raised by puppets who look and act exactly like mom. It takes a lot of patience and commitment. But it has paid off. Today, there is more than 400 California Condors, with more than half of those birds living freely in the wild.

Dr. Michael Wallace: If people just behave themselves and learn how to live with condors, condors would love to live with people. When people get a chance to see this fantastic species on their own, it might change their lives a little bit.

Maggie: Other zoos have done similar things to make sure baby animals raised in captivity will one day be prepared to live in the wild. Gladys, a baby gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, was temporarily raised by humans wearing a furry vest and making gorilla noises. And zoologists in China dress as giant pandas to help raise their baby panda population in captivity.

Conservation efforts often span the globe. This herd of elephants was rescued from Swaziland. The elephants had outgrown their space at a national park in Africa and were set to be killed but were saved when zoos in California and Florida agreed to take them in.

How important is it to make conservation a global effort?

Dr. Allison Alberts: We feel it’s extremely important to work globally. We are now working in thirty-five countries around the world. And while we can do a lot of work with animals that we have here in our collection, our whole goal is to preserve animals out in the wild in their natural habitats.

Maggie: But zoos have to make tough decisions.

Dr. Alberts: It’s really hard to decide which animals we want to save because, of course, me personally, I would love to save them all. And that’s just not possible because we have limited resources.

Maggie: So, zoos focus those resources on certain species, like umbrella species – big, lovable animals that inspire people to take action to save them, which then helps protect other species.

Dr. Alberts: If we can conserve something like an elephant or a panda, we’re automatically conserving less popular species that share the habitat with that species.

Maggie: And keystone species, plants and animals that play an important and necessary role in the ecosystem, like the cactus in the dessert. Without these species, an ecosystem will most likely crumble.

Zoos can also help save the rarest species, even some that have gone extinct. In this lab at the San Diego Zoo, scientists are freezing the DNA of extinct and near extinct animals. There is hope to use this DNA to bring these animals back to life in the future.

So, could we one day see dinosaurs roaming around? While the future of a real life T. Rex is unknown, the future of our own species depends on biodiversity.

Dr. Alberts: Having wildlife is part of having a healthy planet. And people cannot survive without a healthy planet in the long run.

Maggie: Protecting species biodiversity could mean saving our own species in the process.


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