Zoos and Endangered Species Conservation

A Concerted Effort to Turn Back the Clock on Extinction

Close up of mascarene or Echo Parakeet.

Mark Carwardine / Getty Images

The world's best zoos offer face-to-face encounters with some of the most fascinating and rare creatures on the planet—an experience that few people would ever be able to pursue in the wild. Unlike the cramped cages that housed wild animals in sideshow spectacles of the past, the modern zoo has elevated habitat emulation to an art, carefully recreating natural environments and offering inhabitants challenging activities to reduce boredom and stress.

The evolution of zoos has also included programs dedicated to protecting endangered species, both in captivity and in the wild. Zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) participate in Species Survival Plan Programs that involve captive breeding, reintroduction programs, public education, and field conservation to ensure survival for many of the planet's threatened and endangered species.

Conservation Breeding

AZA conservation breeding programs (also known as captive breeding programs) are designed to augment populations of endangered species and avoid extinction via regulated breeding in zoos and other approved facilities.

One of the primary challenges facing captive breeding programs is maintaining genetic diversity. If the population of a captive breeding program is too small, inbreeding may result, leading to health problems that can have a negative impact on the species' survival. For this reason, breeding is carefully managed to ensure as much genetic variation as possible.

Six Species Saved From Extinction by Zoos

  1. Arabian Oryx: Hunted to extinction in the wild, the Arabian Oryx was revitalized thanks to conservation efforts by the Phoenix Zoo and other organizations. As of 2017, 1,000 animals had been restored to the wild, while thousands more were living in zoo environments.
  2. Przewalski’s Horse: The only truly wild species left in the world, Przewalski’s Horse is native to the grasslands of Central Asia. After being declared completely extinct in the wild, it’s made an amazing comeback.
  3. California Condor: Not all that long ago, there were only 27 of these magnificent birds left. Thanks to conservation efforts from the San Diego Wild Animal Park and the Los Angeles Zoo, hundreds of California Condors have been reintroduced into the wild.
  4. Bongo: The Eastern Bongo, a large antelope native to a remote region of Kenya was one of the last large mammal species to be discovered but poaching and loss of habitat nearly wiped them out. Zoos worldwide are working to establish a stable population to ensure their survival.
  5. Panamanian Golden Frog: Beautiful but extremely poisonous, the entire species succumbed to the effects of a devastating fungal disease in the wild. Since 2007, existing captive populations abetted by collaborative conservation efforts by a number of zoos have staved off their extinction.
  6. Golden Lion Tamarin: Close to extinction due to loss of habitat from logging and mining, as well as poaching in its native Brazil, there has been a steady effort since the 1980s to ensure this species doesn’t vanish from the face of the Earth. Currently, about one-third of wild Golden Lion Tamarins come from breeding programs.

Source: Taronga Conservation Society Australia

Reintroduction Programs

The goal of reintroduction programs is to release animals that have been raised or rehabilitated in zoos back into their natural habitats. AZA describes these programs as "powerful tools used for stabilizing, re-establishing, or increasing in situ animal populations that have suffered significant declines."

In cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the IUCN Species Survival Commission, AZA-accredited institutions have established reintroduction programs for endangered animals such as the black-footed ferret, California condor, freshwater mussel, and Oregon spotted frog.

Public Education

Zoos educate millions of visitors each year about endangered species and related conservation issues. Over the past 10 years, AZA-accredited institutions have also trained more than 400,000 teachers with award-winning science curricula.

A nationwide study including more than 5,500 visitors from 12 AZA-accredited institutions found that visits to zoos and aquariums prompt individuals to reconsider their role in environmental problems and see themselves as part of the solution.

Field Conservation

Field conservation focuses on the long-term survival of species in natural ecosystems and habitats. Zoos participate in conservation projects that support studies of populations in the wild, species recovery efforts, veterinary care for wildlife disease issues, and conservation awareness.

Success Stories

Today, 31 animal species classified as "Extinct in the Wild" are being bred in captivity. Reintroduction efforts are underway for some of these species, including the Hawaiian crow. According to a 2021 study published in the journal Conservation Letters, at least 20 bird and nine mammal species have been saved from extinction through conservation breeding and reintroduction efforts since 1993.

The Future of Zoos and Captive Breeding

A study recently published in the journal Science supports the establishment of specialized zoos and a network of captive breeding programs that target species facing an acute risk of extinction. "Specialization generally increases breeding success. The animals can be 'parked' at these zoos until they have a chance of survival in the natural environment and can then be returned to the wild," the study's lead researchers told Science Daily. Endangered species breeding programs will also help scientists better understand population dynamics critical to the management of animals in the wild.

View Article Sources
  1. Willoughby, Janna R., et al. “Inbreeding and Selection Shape Genomic Diversity in Captive Populations: Implications for the Conservation of Endangered Species.” PLoS ONE, vol. 12, 2017, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0175996

  2. Reintroduction Programs.” Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

  3. Conservation Education.” Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

  4. Why Zoos and Aquariums Matter: Assessing the Impact of a Visit to a Zoo or Aquarium.” Association of Zoos & Aquariums.

  5. Hawaiian Crow Corvus Hawaiiensis.” Bird Life International.

  6. Bolam, Friederike C. et al. "How Many Bird And Mammal Extinctions Has Recent Conservation Action Prevented?". Conservation Letters, vol 14, no. 1, 2020, doi:10.1111/conl.12762.

  7. Max-Planck-Gesellschaft. "Biodiversity conservation: Zoos urged to breed animals from threatened populations." ScienceDaily, 17 March 2011.