Are zoos stepping up to amphibian conservation?

by Berglind Karlsdóttir - March 1, 2018

As an intern with the SAFE programmes, I recently participated in my first official ‘work outing’ – the British and Irish Association for Zoos and Aquaria’s “Stepping up to conservation” conference at Yorkshire Wildlife Park in Doncaster this January. My manager and I both went to make the case for amphibian conservation.

Jeff presenting on the Saving Amphibians From Extinction (SAFE) Programmes of Durrell

Zoos welcome 700 million visitors/year, bringing in an income of $350 million/year.  The contribution of zoos towards conservation is a hot topic and has been for decades, as zoos are stuck in an awkward position between criticism from animal welfare groups, and applaud for conservation contributions. The best zoos communicate important causes to a wide audience, carry out important research on poorly known species, fundraise from resources otherwise unavailable to conservation and carry out on the ground conservation. Unfortunately, it is currently largely up to each zoo in what capacity they wish to contribute to conservation; and although there are some that do a great amount of work, there are others that are simply less interested or have less capacity to do so. Even for the best zoos, it is challenging to strike a balance between their many purposes and ensure a conservation impact.

But contributing to conservation is not just about handing out money. Funding is definitely a resource need in the field, and something zoos have increased access to, but financial input does not necessarily equal conservation output. From the talks at this conference we especially got an insight into the level of expertise among the attendants in leading species-based conservation. There was a high focus on stakeholder collaboration, community engagement, assessment, planning and implementation, local capacity building and training. All of these priority actions presented important enablers in my master’s study into the barriers of amphibian captive breeding programmes in the tropics. I also found that zoos are the number 1 partner to these programmes! This study was the basis of my presentation, which aimed to promote the support from zoos even further, and to highlight the need for different types of support at different stages of a programme. Approaching the conference with that perspective, I thought the projects presented at the conference offered examples of best practice conservation, and it was clear that the presenters knew what they were doing. Such well rounded project designs ensure higher impact, but are far from the standard in the field.

Me presenting the operational model that came out of my thesis study

The different workshops that had been integrated amongst the talks provided tools for some aspects of programme implementation such as designing a species conservation action plan, setting objectives for your project, or communicating your work to the public (See the video below). This was especially useful for the group of early career fledglings like me, who wanted to understand how to make the jump from theory to practice.

Workshop exercise using Post-it notes to classify objectives to a translocation project

My experience at this conference was in stark contrast to the more academic conferences I’ve been to – it didn’t just highlight the importance of different conservation interventions – it gave real examples of how they are implemented on the ground. The challenge now seems to be the mainstreaming of these efforts into the wider zoo community, as well as advocating for more frogs and salamanders. On that note, we were not able to find any frogs in the wildlife park, but hope we might have inspired them to get some in the future. In the meantime, here is a video of the next best thing we could find: a black-and-white ruffed lemur, jumping of joy!