By Jim Breheny
WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) commemorates Endangered Species Day today at all five of our wildlife parks in New York City. It is an opportunity to recognize that we are all stewards of this planet and that the fragile balance of the Earth’s biodiversity is in our hands. Many species are threatened with extinction due to human activities, but there is much that each of us can do in the name of conservation to help save species around the world.
Since its founding 120 years ago, WCS – whose parks include the Bronx Zoo, the New York Aquarium, the Central Park Zoo, the Queens Zoo and the Prospect Park Zoo – has become one of the world’s leading conservation organizations. We have married the expertise in our zoos and aquarium with our global field conservation programs in the name of saving wildlife.
Beginning in 1905 with the Bronx Zoo’s pivotal role in bringing the American bison back from the brink of extinction, our zoos and aquarium have for more than a century provided our animals with exceptional care while helping to ensure viable populations and species sustainability for future generations.
More than three decades ago, WCS was a driving force in the creation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan (SSP) program. SSPs are cooperative interzoo programs designed to manage breeding populations of threatened and endangered species in AZA zoos and aquariums for genetic diversity and demographic stability. Today there are approximately 600 SSP programs.
WCS’s zoos and aquarium, as well as many other AZA facilities across the country, have also leveraged their husbandry expertise to breed some of the endangered species that we care for to be reintroduced to the wild. The Bronx Zoo has recently participated in such efforts to assist in the survival of a wide range of wildlife, including Siamese crocodiles in Lao PDR, Puerto Rican crested toads, hellbenders (a large salamander) in New York State and Kihansi spray toads in Tanzania.
The spray toad effort is especially noteworthy because it marks the first time an extinct-in-the-wild amphibian has ever been reintroduced!
At the same time, since the Bronx Zoo’s opening in 1899 WCS’s zoos and aquarium have hosted more than 400 million visitors, providing many guests their only opportunity to experience close contact with wild animals whose natural habitat is thousands of miles away and which they might otherwise never see. Zoos make the conservation challenges wild animals face in today’s world real for park guests, inspiring many to become actively involved in advocacy efforts to protect threatened species and the places where they live.
A great example of such advocacy is the recent 96 Elephants campaign initiated by WCS.
Organized to raise attention to the growing poaching crisis that claims the lives of some 35,000 elephants a year (96 per day, or one every 15 minutes), the 96 Elephants campaign has worked with more than 120 AZA partners to advocate for tougher laws in states all around the US to prevent the sale of ivory.
That effort played a big role in the passage last year of tough ivory bans in the states of New York and New Jersey. Similar laws are now being considered in several other states, including California, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and elsewhere.
Today the AZA is marking Endangered Species Day by officially launching a new initiative called SAFE – Saving Animals From Extinction.
AZA SAFE will pool the resources, expertise, and conservation science of the entire AZA-accredited zoo and aquarium community to help save endangered species in the wild. Beginning with the African penguin, AZA has identified 10 priority species and is developing conservation action plans for each. Over time, the AZA SAFE initiative will expand to 100 priority species.
The SAFE campaign reminds us that modern zoos and aquariums must be conservation organizations capable of relating the species in their care to those needing protection in the wild.
Through science, financial support, and education – combined with husbandry and veterinary expertise – zoos and aquariums must be major contributors to conservation of species around the world. Global biodiversity is a top priority for AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums and their 180 million annual visitors. Launching the AZA SAFE initiative on Endangered Species Day is a great way to celebrate that.
WCS Executive Vice President Jim Breheny is General Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Zoos & Aquarium and the Jonathan Little Cohen Director the Bronx Zoo.