A SAFE Haven

January 2018

By Kate Silver

SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction is Helping Zoos and Aquariums Flex their Conservation Muscle

In the midst of an ongoing extinction crisis, Dan Ashe, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, believes the conservation work of AZA members is more important than ever.

“As modern zoos and aquariums, nobody cares more about animals than the people who work at these facilities,” he said.  “As facilities that exhibit animals, we have an obligation to take care of those animals in our facilities and provide exceptional care for them. But we also have an obligation to care for them in nature.”

“I think maintaining a very active engagement in the conservation of animals in nature is going to be a key facet of the successful zoo and aquarium in the future,” said Ashe. “SAFE is that ingredient for us and our members.”

That’s where SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction comes in. Since launching in 2015, SAFE has evolved from being spearheaded by AZA to being driven by AZA members, whose collections represent more than 6,000 species—nearly 1,000 of which are endangered in the wild. Zoo and aquarium staff have the knowledge and resources to impact species in their natural habitats, while also educating their own visitors about a species’ plight and raising funds and changing behaviors directed towards conservation.

“I think maintaining a very active engagement in the conservation of animals in nature is going to be a key facet of the successful zoo and aquarium in the future,” said Ashe. “SAFE is that ingredient for us and our members.”

Here are three ways AZA members are keeping animals SAFE.

Giving Lesser Known Species the Help They Need

Until 1958, no one knew the words “vaquita porpoise.” Today, the mammal’s population has dwindled to fewer than 30, and it’s considered the world’s most critically endangered marine mammal. With the help of SAFE, AZA members are working to save the vaquita.

Vaquita porpoises live in the northwestern corner of the Gulf of California in Mexico. Their population has suffered because vaquita are becoming entangled in gillnets set for shrimp and fish—including an enormous endangered fish called the totoaba, which is illegally harvested for its swim bladder, which is sold in China.

A group called VaquitaCPR, which is made up of The Marine Mammal Center, the National Marine Mammal Foundation, the Chicago Zoological Society and led by the Secretariat of Environment and Natural Resources (SEMARNAT, a federal conservation agency in Mexico), received significant support from the larger AZA community through SAFE and brought together marine mammal and conservation experts to devise a plan to locate, rescue and provide care for vaquita porpoises. “The goal was to bring them into a temporary sanctuary in San Felipe, Mexico, so that conservation efforts could be managed,” said David Bader, the Vaquita SAFE public engagement coordinator and director of education at Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif.

By giving the small cetaceans sanctuary, VaquitaCPR sought to offer something that’s at a premium: time. Bader said that the decline of the porpoise is a complex issue revolving around unenforced laws and the difficulties the U.S. and Mexico face trying to curb illegal wildlife trafficking of the totoaba; the challenge that faces Chinese officials in curbing demand for the bladder and enforcing its own laws surrounding totoaba bladder sales; and unsustainable fishing practices.

He adds that U.S. consumers also bear part of the burden for the demise of the vaquita (along with the totoaba and other species): “Unsustainable fishing only happens because people will purchase unsustainably caught seafood,” he said. “It’s important to recognize that unsustainable practices are unsustainable for all species, not just those on the brink of extinction.”

Any changes will take years, and that’s something that, without a safe haven and conservation efforts, the vaquita porpoise doesn’t have.  Other species could benefit from these changes, though, pre-empting population crashes to such small numbers in the first place.

Bader said beyond helping a species in dire need, the vaquita SAFE campaign imparts a powerful message about the potential of AZA members to make an impact. While several SAFE species have been involved in decades-long conservation projects, the vaquita, which doesn’t exist in collections anywhere, was relatively unknown to many in the AZA community and beyond. “Species like the vaquita would not have garnered so much attention within the AZA had it not been for SAFE,” said Bader. “SAFE really gave it structure and a voice to a species that could have been missed.”

A Greater Impact by Working Together

Five years ago, Mike McClure, who is general curator at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, was deeply worried about the future of African penguins (his zoo is home to the largest colony in North America). Today, thanks to SAFE, he feels more optimistic. “I can sit at my house at night and say​, ‘African penguins might survive now. They might have a chance.’”

African Penguin © Association of Zoos and Aquariums

McClure is project coordinator of an AZA SAFE-supported project in South Africa that is collecting data on the marine movements of penguins, their foraging strategies and the patterns of the fish the birds feed on to try and better understand what’s impacting the population and intervene accordingly.

“As biologists and conservationists, it’s easy for us to sit back and think that​ the fisheries are overfishing the waters around the penguin colonies. The penguins aren’t eating as well. They’re breeding success is declining. The birds are dying. But without data, without real information that supports those claims, at the end of the day, that’s just an opinion,” he said. The Marine Movement Project will result in data, statistics and insights that document what is happening with the African penguin so that conservation organizations can make a difference. What was once a hunch about the population’s decline could now be proven. 

McClure said the Marine Movement Project—and SAFE—brings together AZA-accredited facilities, researchers, and conservation organizations, and, in doing so, multiplies the impact an individual zoo or aquarium might otherwise have in saving a species.

“I think it makes us a more collaborative community in a way that we hadn’t accomplished yet,” he said. “You’re part of a bigger whole, not just an individual fighting the good fight. You have backing, you have partners, you have other people who are standing side by side with you as you move forward with these field efforts.”

He adds that SAFE has given AZA members a platform to do what they do best: work with animals. Not just in the zoo, but in the wild.

“As a zoo professional, there’s very little that’s more satisfying at the end of the day than being able to go home and feel like I just made a big impact on African penguins. Not just at our breeding colony here at the Maryland Zoo, but also in South Africa. The work that we’re doing and the impact we’re going to have, it’s going to be tremendous.”

Sharing the Message of What Their Facility is Doing to Make a Difference

Dr. Christina Castellano is excited to watch SAFE evolve. As someone who wears a number of hats related to SAFE —including vice chair and SAFE coordinator with AZA’s Field Conservation Committee, SAFE program leader for the radiated tortoise, and vice president and chief science officer with Utah’s Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City—she sees endless possibilities for zoos and aquariums to make an impact. In the past, AZA selected “signature species,” and members participated in ongoing conservation efforts surrounding those species. Now, AZA is inviting member facilities to select species that are significant for their organizations (as long as they fit the SAFE criteria) and take the lead in developing the SAFE program around those species, while also connecting with other facilities involved in the conservation of that species. 

“Every species has a story, but every zoo or aquarium has a story too,” said Castellano. “And the SAFE program now marries the story of that species with the story of the zoo or aquarium. So when we’re out there talking to our guests, it’s not just about the animals, it’s about who we are as an organization and what we’re doing to save that animal in the wild.”

At Hogle Zoo, the focal SAFE animal is the radiated tortoise. The critically endangered tortoise, which is only found in Madagascar, has been declining because of issues related to international trade. Castellano said poachers sell the tortoise for hundreds to thousands of dollars on the black market. In recent years, Hogle Zoo, in partnership with Turtle Survival Alliance and, most recently, Zoo Knoxville (which connected with the efforts via SAFE), have developed a Madagascar-based program that, with the help of local law enforcement, is rehabilitating and caring for animals that have been confiscated. To date, they’re giving sanctuary to nearly 8,000 confiscated tortoises and devising plans to reintroduce them to the wild. In addition, Zoo Knoxville—which is the home of the Species Survival Plan® for the radiated tortoise—is developing an animal husbandry program that will further help conservation efforts.

By working together, Castellano said the efforts of all involved parties multiply, which is a boon for the tortoises. The facilities are then able to connect that work back to their own facility and educate visitors on the difference the zoo is making.

“Traditionally, zoos have really focused on their properties in terms of sharing information with our guests about what’s happening in the wild. SAFE takes it a step further, in that the programs we’re running are required to have a consequence for the species in nature,” she said. “We’re in this evolution of becoming conservation organizations, and ultimately that’s going to be about saving species in the wild.”

It’s About the Animals – and Us

Saving animals, caring for animals, and connecting people with animals—these are what AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums do best. SAFE has already demonstrated its potential to harness these strengths for the benefit of animals in the wild. Embracing SAFE acknowledges the conservation obligation of all zoos and aquariums and helps the AZA community work together more—and more effectively—so that the impact on Saving Animals From Extinction is even greater.

Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill. 


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