Captive Breeding

Captive breeding provides a means for conserving species that may not survive in the wild. While captive populations are established for many reasons—such as conservation education, exhibit of interesting species, and research—establishing captive populations for saving species from extinction is an important contribution of zoos to conservation.

Many species have been saved from extinction by captive breeding. Examples include:

The goal of most captive breeding programs for endangered species is to establish captive populations that are large enough to be demographically stable and genetically healthy. This means

  • maintaining a healthy age structure
  • ensuring that reproduction is reliably successful
  • protecting the population against diseases
  • preserving the gene pool to avoid the problems of inbreeding

A goal of some captive breeding programs may also be to reintroduce animals back to the wild, as is the case with the global breeding program for the golden lion tamarin, the black-footed ferret, and the Guam rail.

Species Survival Program

Since each zoo typically has space for only a limited number of animals of each species, maintaining healthy populations requires zoos to manage their collections as cooperatively breeding populations.

In North America, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums coordinates the Species Survival Program. Similar programs have developed in other regions of the world (for example, the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria's Australasian Species Management Program, and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria's European Endangered Species Programmes).

Requirements for managing a cooperative breeding program

A Studbook

This is a computerized database of all animals in the captive population detailing information on dates of births and deaths, gender, parentage, locations, and local identification numbers of animals. Analyses of these data provide critical information on historical trends in population size, age-specific reproductive and survival rates, age structure, numbers of founders, degree of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity, and other measures useful for evaluating temporal changes taking place in a captive population. These data are also the basis for making management recommendations designed to enhance the demographic and genetic security of the captive population.

A Coordinator

A volunteer with a special interest in the species coordinates the management of the population. Based on the analysis of the studbook, the coordinator makes periodic recommendations about which individuals should breed, how often, and with whom. Animals may be shipped between institutions to establish the best pairings. The species coordinator also monitors the population for problems and identifies areas of concern, for example, lack of successful reproduction or over-population problems.