With some of our favourite wild animals nearing extinction in the wild, zoos are providing a vital ‘safety net’ that might secure the survival of many species. As Twycross conducts its annual animal census, NIGEL POWLSON discovers the part the zoo is playing in the conservation plan.
“IT’S a sad but true fact that unless we do something really drastic, we will see tiger and orangutans becoming extinct in the wild during our lifetime.”
That’s the grim verdict of Neil Dorman, from Twycross Zoo, as he takes a look at the stark future for animals trying to share our small planet with an ever-growing human population. That’s also why he believes the work he’s doing at Twycross is crucial.
“Zoos are playing an increasingly important role in maintaining genetically strong and diverse populations in captivity so that they can act as a safety net population for those wild animals in danger,” he says.
With ever more animal species facing extinction in the wild, the conservation work of zoos becomes increasingly needed and Twycross is determined to play a vital part.
Neil, the zoo’s curator of conservation, programmes and planning, is currently overseeing Twycross’s annual census, which is a key part of the conservation plans of all zoos.
Twycross, together with zoos across the country, completes a stock-take of all animals every January for basic animal management and for achieving set conservation, research, and education goals.
Neil says: “The annual stock take is something we do as part of our zoo licence, but it also helps us develop our collection plan for the year ahead and ensures that each birth, death and animal transfer has been recorded correctly. It’s also an opportunity for studbook coordinators of endangered species to monitor how individual species are performing in zoos for breeding programmes.”
All the animals are checked daily by the keepers and it’s not as if the zoo is likely to discover a new elephant but as Neil points out, insects are generally recorded as colonies and the census gives an opportunity to be ‘a bit more accurate’.
“We aren’t going to record every insect born but, at the end of the year, we can get a sense of how big a colony is.
“The most crucial thing is genetically important populations because if we are ever going to get to the point of returning animals to the wild, we need to ensure they are fit and well. There’s no point sending animals that aren’t good genetically back to the wild. These are the long term goals.
“The barrier between wild and captive populations is merging more and more. We are getting to the stage where some wild populations are so small that we will have to start using the same management techniques used by zoos to control genetics and ensure maximum growth and diversity. So what we are doing in zoos is cross transferable and we have reached the stage where some wild populations aren’t really wild. There has to be some degree of management.
“At the end of the day, the best place to try and preserve any endangered species is in its own state but zoos act as a vital safety net, so that if something goes drastically wrong there’s a strong population in captivity to fall back on.”
Importantly, the census gives numbers back to organisers of breeding programmes.
Neil says: “They can see what animals have been born, moved, or have died. Then another plan cane be formed and recommendations made as to what animals we should be breeding.
“The majority of zoos we work with are Europe-based. A co-ordinator will be responsible for a particular species and will make recommendations based on the figures they receive. It’s important to maximise the overall potential and ensure the genetic diversity is maintained at its maximum level.”
Twycross is a specialist primate centre but although it’s a key area for the zoo, it is active in many programmes.
Neil says: “We are one of the few zoos in the world keeping all four species of great ape, so our input into those programmes is very important. But we are active in many areas.”
The zoo has just celebrated its 50th anniversary and is looking forward to welcoming more new arrivals in 2014.
“It’s hard to predict,” Neil says. “Some animals have long gestation periods and we might not be aware they are pregnant, whereas other animals we are expecting to breed. It’s a vital part of what we do here.”