Best Laid Plans

August 2017

By Kate Silver

TAG-Level Strategic Planning Helps Pave a Path Toward Sustainability

In 2015, AZA’s Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee launched a new initiative to help guide Taxon Advisory Group leaders through a strategic planning process. In this process, the focus isn’t just on the overarching goal of population sustainability, but to use sustainability tools, such as Population Viability Analyses (PVAs), the Species Survival Plan® Sustainability Database, regional collection plans, population trends and other data to enhance species selection and help develop specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-bound goals (aka SMART goals) for SSPs.

Dr. Karen Goodrowe Beck, who is the WCMC member leading the initiative and general curator at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, Wash., said that it’s not uncommon for TAG leaders to state such broad objectives as, “We want to increase reproduction” or “We want to grow the population.” That’s why the new process is important: it helps TAG and SSP leaders narrow their focus and chisel out a detailed strategy. “It’s getting them to really think much more specifically,” said Beck. “It’s really challenging them to dig a little deeper and to critically evaluate all the information and what they’re doing, rather than just standing back and taking the path of least resistance.”

Sarah Long, director of AZA’s Population Management Center that is based at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, Ill., is hopeful that the planning will help guide TAG and SSP leaders and, ultimately, measure or improve the viability of SSP populations. “The intended outcome of strategic planning is that TAGs will select and prioritize populations that are truly important across AZA-accredited facilities and which can benefit from the resources AZA has to offer,” said Long. “Setting SMART goals for SSP populations should help program leaders identify challenges, measure success and show progress. If goals and objectives are not achieved, it can open the way for more critical examination of the SSP’s issues to find other solutions or direct resources differently.”

“It’s really challenging them to dig a little deeper and to critically evaluate all the information and what they’re doing, rather than just standing back and taking the path of least resistance.”

So far, a handful of TAGs have participated in the strategic planning, and the process has been different for each. Felid TAG co-chairs Don Goff and Cheryl Morris were the first to work through the process. Morris, who is vice chair of the TAG and chief conservation officer with Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Neb., said that an early step was going through the PVAs (which incorporate historical demographic genetic data along with population management practices) for all the animals in the TAG. She said that meeting highlighted something they already knew: the Amur tiger was in decline in zoos, and numbers were even lower than some anticipated—there were 130, down from 150 just a few years before.

“The take-home message is that something is going on here, and we’re not exactly sure what it is,” said Goff, who is deputy director of Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo in Bridgeport, Conn.

“The PVA and strategic planning meeting highlighted the critical need to address the decline in different ways than had been attempted previously,” said Morris.

With the guidance of WCMC, a team came together that included the AZA Population Management Center, a former member of the TAG steering committee who was trained to facilitate meetings through the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Conservation Breeding Specialist Group, a representative of the Conservation Centers for Species Survival (C2S2), a representative of the Exotic Feline Breeding Compound in Los Angeles, Calif, and other partners. Together, they began devising a multi-faceted strategy to help bolster sustainability efforts for the Amur tiger, including genome resource banking and assisted reproductive technologies—particularly the development of less invasive breeding techniques for tigers. The Tiger SSP has since met to discuss steps for putting the strategic plan into action; and at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, a tiger breeding center is in the development phase. While there are not yet any new Amur tiger cubs, there’s a sense of optimism and determination. “We’ve started to see some movement in a very short period of time in the right direction,” said Morris. “We won’t know if some of these efforts are going to produce offspring but it’s certainly headed that way. There’s an emphasis on it now.” 

For all of the TAG leaders, space is a challenge. That’s especially true for Pete Mohan, who is the WCMC liaison to the Freshwater Fishes and Aquatic Invertebrate TAGs, a steering group committee member for both TAGs and director of animal operations at Akron Zoo in Akron, Ohio. While it’s true that fish take up less room than most species and can thrive in a 20-gallon tank in a hallway, Mohan points out that they also draw fewer fans than, say, a mammal. “They’re little brown fish, basically. So for the most part, they’re not as engaging to the public, or to the directors and curators who make decisions about space,” he said.

That’s why he’s working with the WCMC to determine priority freshwater fish for managing. “There are a lot of freshwater fishes that are endangered,” he said. “It’s an area where potentially we could have a lot of impact.” As part of the planning process, the team will look at which species are critically endangered and which are still viable in the wild, among other things, to come up with SMART goals for the TAG. Mohan knows that in the end, he may need to make some difficult decisions about what species to focus on and which ones to deprioritize in order to help others succeed. “The process of doing ‘triage’ on breeding programs is not really a new idea, but it is becoming increasingly important as zoos and aquariums try to maximize their impact on conservation,” said Mohan. “We need to make the best use of the spaces available (it’s a limited resource). In situ conservation programs of all stripes also use this strategy to effectively marshal resources such as dollars, personnel and time.”

Karen Bauman, chair of the Canid and Hyaenid TAG and laboratory manager at Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo., took an international approach to strategic planning. She’s been working with associations across the world (including the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria and the Zoo and Aquarium Association of Australasia, La Asociación Latinoamericana de Parques Zoológicos y Acuarios, Pan-African Association of Zoos & Aquaria and Central Zoo Authority of India) to compile and share information about species within the TAG.

Bauman said that that the varied organizations will be coming together to discuss population data they’ve collected about the African painted dogs, which have been disappearing across much of Africa, threatened by fragmentation and loss of habitat. Today, eight regional zoo associations hold 696 African painted dogs.

“Some of the questions we need to address next involve how to properly evaluate the global ex situ populations as a whole, since we all have limited space and there are often more species we should be working with than resources can support in a single region and we need to constantly be looking at the sustainability of the populations we have elected to focus on,” said Bauman. “So we might ask how many potential founders are there in the global population, where are they and do we need to relocate some to maximize gene diversity? Or do we need to strategize about space? Do we need eight populations of painted dogs, or do we need ten or could we be as effective if we reduced to five and used the other spaces for another large canid?” She adds that she expects the group to use a variety of software tools to help answer those questions and shape the long-range plans.

Bauman said that working with a global network has been a tool, itself. “I’d strongly recommend the strategy of working regionally, but planning globally, as I feel it provides all of us the benefit of learning from each other and of looking for creative solutions for managing our ex situ collections more efficiently and sustainability,” she said. 

As the Chair of AZA's Ciconiiformes & Phoenicopteriformes TAG, Harrison Edell, who is also vice president, animal operations and welfare at Dallas Zoo in Dallas, Texas, said he’s long had a question lingering in the back of his mind: Are we putting our resources to the best possible use? “Some of the species that we work with are a least concern, some of them are critically endangered, and each species serves a different role in the zoos that house them,” said Edell.

Through the WCMC-led planning process, he looked at the Ciconiiformes species and considered the sustainability of each, consulting studbook data and conducting PVAs. He was faced with some difficult decisions.

“Thinking about the species that the Ciconiiformes TAG oversees, there are some species out there in the world that are of critical conservation concern. And there are other species that are beautiful, flamboyant, fascinating animals which make outstanding exhibits, but which are not necessarily of the same conservation concern,” he said.

Finding balance between the two has been a challenge. He gives the example of scarlet ibis, which are beautiful bright pink birds that zoo audiences love, but are not considered a high conservation priority. On the other hand, the critically endangered waldrapp ibis—an SSP that he manages—isn’t always so endearing. “Everything about them is a little bit cartoonish,” he said. “They’re goofy-looking bald birds with an odd ruff of feathers around their necks and they make weird noises and their behavior is fascinating if you’re really interested in birds,” said Edell. “But because they’re not flamboyant and pink, they’re sometimes overlooked.”

A Waldrapp ibis © Thinkstock Photos

Dallas Zoo is home to one of the two largest flocks of the birds in human care in AZA, and the planning process served as an important reminder that the waldrapp ibis, along with a few other species, are a priority. “Given that space is the limiting factor we will have to make some tough decisions for every taxon that we work with,” said Edell. “And without an inclusive, well thought-out, well-orchestrated approach to strategic planning, it will be impossible for TAGs to make some of those tough decisions. The longer we wait to make those decisions the more our populations are put at risk.”

Back within the WCMC, Beck said that it’s been an educational process to work with each TAG and respond to their varying needs. She said she hopes that more TAG leaders will reach out to AZA and initiate the planning process.

“It really helps the TAGs focus on things they want to focus on and feel much better about the work that they’re doing towards sustaining these species,” said Beck.

Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill. 


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