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 some circumstances where the animals need to be removed and brought to our zoo. 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 zoo 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).
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 zoo 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 in a single location. The wild population is so vulnerable to random environmental changes, that a breeding programme has been established in Madagascar as one of our core responses (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.
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.
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 zoo 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?