The animal collection at the wildlife park is an integral part of Durrell’s conservation work. Gerald Durrell’s vision was that zoos should be not only be entertaining but centres for research, education and animal conservation and this has been the ethos behind our work here at Durrell wildlife park ever since. The animals in our collection play a number of key roles in conservation ranging from being part of dedicated breeding programmes to acting as ambassadors for the biodiversity of their home countries.
Conservation breeding and safety nets
For species that have become highly threatened in their native habitat and their entire population has become very small, it may be necessary to bring some individuals into captivity. These are called assurance or safety net populations and it means that should the worst happen and the species disappears from the wild, its survival is ensured.
Whilst these populations can sometimes be established in the species country of origin where the environmental conditions are most appropriate there are clear circumstances where the animals need to be totally removed and brought to our wildlife park. Perhaps it is because the threat facing the species (human or environmental) could also affect the captive population, maybe the skills are lacking in country and they cannot be developed in time, or alternatively the costs of establishing an in country breeding programme are so great that the most viable option is to remove them?
However the work does not stop there. Our goal is to return these individuals back to the wild and where possible we initiate projects in their home countries to restore habitat and build local capacity to reintroduce individuals. For example, the threat of the deadly chytrid fungus to the Montserrat mountain chicken frog and the speed with which it spread through the population meant that, together with the Government of Montserrat we had to act rapidly to bring animals to our wildlife park within strict biosecure conditions . These animals are now part of a dedicated breeding and conservation programme managed between four leading zoological institutions (See here for more information). Similarly staff from our Herpetological Department are leading a breeding programme for the lesser night gecko from Mauritius. Large numbers of these diminutive reptiles, bred in a dedicated unit within our reptile house, are destined to be released onto Ile Marianne, a small Mauritian island in an effort to restore the fauna previously destroyed by introduced predators such as musk shrews and rats. Our staff at Durrell wildlife park are closely integrated with the field programmes in Mauritius sharing expertise and assisting in the restoration of this species.
Increasing knowledge and understanding
We frequently carry out research with our captive populations to answer key questions on their management and biology. The Critically Endangered pied tamarin, fast disappearing from its Amazonian home, is prone to metabolic bone disease, yet through extensive trials with UV supplementation we have established a protocol that ensures we can maintain healthy, thriving populations in captivity, until such time the species future in the wild is more secure. We also support scientists from other institutions to come to Jersey and work with our staff and animal collections to answer key questions that enhance our understanding of the natural world.
Of course bringing a number of individuals of a highly threatened species into captive conditions is a difficult and challenging task. Given that they are rare, there is often very little known about how to breed the species. Therefore in situations where we are preparing to propose captive breeding as a conservation response for a particular species, we often build up knowledge with closely related or 'model' species. For example we have kept ferruginous ducks here in our wildlife park and have developed husbandry guidelines and skills that have then been applied to our breeding programme for the Madagascar pochard. This is a duck that was thought to have gone extinct, and now there are only thought to be about 20 wild individuals. The wild population is so vulnerable to random environmental changes, that a breeding programme is one of our core responses. But this breeding effort will be based in Madagascar utilising the skills developed in Jersey and from within our partner institutions (see more about this project here). In ways such as these our animal collection here in Jersey can be utilised to answer questions associated with the management of species or their biology that can be applied to conservation problems.
Developing and sharing skills
The animal collection here also supports our field programmes in other ways. The skills our animal staff regularly utilise on a daily basis such as handling, data recording and performing veterinary procedures are equally useful in the field, and many of our keepers travel to our overseas projects to assist and advise. In addition many of our staff are also highly competent field technicians, performing survey work, around the globe. In these cases, rather than the import of animals it is the export of our staff, and their skills, that is key!
Yet Durrell cannot save the world’s animals alone. Today most zoos worldwide collaborate and over the years we have established excellent partnerships with many other zoological institutions. The majority of animals that we care for are part of coordinated programmes in which zoos exchange animals and information to ensure genetic fitness and universal standards of husbandry are achieved. Most programmes operate a studbook and Our Durrell staff actively manage a large number of these, both at European and global levels.
This depth of skill and experience within our animal staff is one of the reasons conservation professionals and students from around the world come to our wildlife park and train. Yet it is also the presence of our animal collection itself and the training opportunities that it presents which makes us unique. What other learning establishments have a campus alive with some of the rarest creatures on the planet?!
So our collection of animals within our wildlife park contributes to our conservation aims in a myriad of ways. Not only is it an ark in the traditional sense, a liferaft of endangered animals that can be used to repopulate should extinction threaten, but it is a dynamic resource, allowing us to learn and hone new techniques, answer conservation questions and pass this knowledge on to others – all key components in saving species from extinction.