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Evolving for Action

By Kate Silver
min read

SAFE Species Programs Work Together Against Conservation Threats

It’s been five years since the Association of Zoos and Aquariums launched SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction. SAFE began with 10 SAFE species programs and has since grown to include 27 species-specific programs. SAFE evolved from being led by AZA to a program that’s driven by AZA members, who now propose species and take ownership of developing SAFE teams and devising collaborative conservation efforts.

The notion of shared threats across species is not a new one. It is easy to see that SAFE species and the health of our planet are all connected in some way, but the infrastructure to address these threats takes time to build. In addition to field conservation and scientific objectives, SAFE species programs address threats by bringing awareness to and engaging their visitors and the public in action against threats to SAFE species.

It’s because of this work that AZA can now engage members at a different level of collaboration. In 2021, a new initiative under SAFE called “Action Against Conservation Threats” or “ACT” will be launched. Through ACT, AZA looks to tackle the most common shared threats to SAFE species, such as habitat loss, wildlife trafficking, pollution, climate change, and more.

“Because of everything our community has been able to build through species-focused conservation, now we’re able to bridge the larger gaps of threats that are affecting all of our SAFE species,” said Kayla Ripple, AZA SAFE coordinator.

In honor of the fifth anniversary of SAFE, and to better understand the evolution of this new SAFE initiative, we talked to five SAFE leaders about where the program has come from and where it’s headed. Here’s what we learned.  

Looking Back

Dr. Richard Bergl has been involved in gorilla conservation for more than two decades. That’s given Bergl, who, is AZA’s Wildlife Conservation Committee liaison to the SAFE gorilla program and a member of the steering committee, as well as the director of conservation, education and science at North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., a valuable vantage point to watch SAFE carve its path. Looking back, he said he respects the way the SAFE has bridged conservation work among zoos, aquariums, and conservation organizations.

“I think in the past, zoos had somewhat worked in silos when it comes to conservation. There was the ‘North Carolina Zoo Gorilla Conservation Project’ or whatever zoo conservation project on a given species, but there was no coordination between them,” said Bergl. “I think SAFE has helped to achieve that coordination and collaboration so that people are working towards a collective conservation goal that’s the best thing for that species, rather than highlighting the work of an individual zoo or aquarium.”

As SAFE shark and ray public engagement coordinator, Jim Wharton, the director of conservation engagement and learning at Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, Wash., has been involved with the program since its earliest days. He said SAFE has helped elevate the conservation work of zoos and aquariums. Visitors—who number nearly 200 million a year—as well as conservation organizations, are now more likely to recognize the role those facilities play in addressing threats to wildlife.

“In order to be an effective conservation organization, you have to be recognized and respected as a conservation organization. So, there is a little bit of a feedback loop there,” said Wharton.

Wharton said that it was necessary to establish that reputation by focusing on individual species before moving in the current direction and tackle even larger challenges in conservation.

Sandtiger shark

Launching a Movement to Save Monarchs

In fact, the progress towards addressing threats has been an organic one, inspired by creative and collaborative actions of SAFE species programs, themselves. One such group is the new SAFE North American monarch program, where social science has played a valuable role in drawing support among members.

The monarch butterfly, with its orange lacy wings, is one of the most recognized of all butterfly species. “It’s really everyone’s butterfly,” said Paige Howorth, SAFE North American monarch vice program leader who is the McKinney Family Director of Invertebrate Care and Conservation at San Diego Zoo in San Diego, Calif. Its plight is also well-known: according to the National Wildlife Federation, North American monarchs have declined almost 90 percent since the 1990s because of habitat loss, pesticides, and other threats.

When this SAFE program formed in 2019, the goal of its leaders was to launch a coordinated movement within the AZA community to address the threats impacting the butterfly. Dr. Lily Maynard, who is the SAFE North American monarch program leader and conservation program manager at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, Fla., is a social scientist who is using her expertise in social movement engagement—coupled with Howorth’s entomology expertise—to rally support. Already, the group has a network of nearly 80 zoos and aquariums and almost a dozen other organizations that have signed on as partners.

The key is that the group is open to anyone.

“That’s important when building a social movement,” said Maynard “You can’t make a small group and then only invite some people to join you and expect a movement to take off.”

Hosting video calls for up to 100 people, they’ve collaborated to design a menu of 15 actions that partners can add to their conservation efforts, such as planting native milkweed so that monarch caterpillars have food, or reducing pesticide use. The actions are grounded in best practices developed by SAFE partners and scientific advisers, such as the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation and Monarch Joint Venture.

 “The thing I think really helps build a lot of buy-in for zoos to sign on is we did not dictate what they have to do,” said Maynard. Rather, each partner selects at least one activity to add to their current efforts.

By launching a social movement, they’re inviting us all to address the threats to a butterfly that’s in our own backyards. And they’re taking notes, so that other AZA members can learn from those efforts and tackle other challenges.

Taking Action for Asian Elephants

By educating people about the ways that oil palm plantations can have a devastating impact on habitat, the SAFE Asian elephant program is using social media to inspire action against shared threats.

It began in 2019, when educators in the program got together to discuss a significant challenge to their conservation work: awareness. Asian elephants are classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), with populations declining by 50 percent over the last century. 

Danielle Ross, who is a member of the SAFE Asian elephant steering committee as the public engagement coordinator and vice president of conservation education and engagement at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio, and The Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio, said that when people think of elephants, their minds often go to Africa.

“The numbers are more dire for Asian elephants, but people don’t realize that,” said Ross. “We felt people don’t even realize that there are elephants in Asia.”

Western lowland gorilla

The group launched a social media campaign called #TONSoflove to draw attention to the species. They asked zoo visitors across the country to hold their hands in the shape of a heart and taken an “elphie” (elephant selfie) with an Asian elephant, with the goal of getting 40,000 people to react to the campaign. By the end of the campaign, the elephant messages reached more than 1.6 million people, with 89,974 likes, comments, and shares—more than twice the goal.

The next step, said Ross, is to share messages about threats to Asian elephants, like oil palm plantations. In Indonesia, the world’s largest producer of palm oil, oil palm plantations are taking over massive amounts of land, threatening the habitat of Asian elephants, as well as other animals such as orangutans, Sumatran tigers, and a number of bird species. Ross said that the next social media campaign will encourage people to download the Sustainable Palm Oil Shopping App produced by Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., and share a photo of themselves choosing sustainable palm oil.

“We want people to start showing themselves doing something to help Asian elephants, and that’s showing their love,” said Ross.  

By addressing the shared threat of habitat loss, the campaign will be working to make a difference not just for Asian elephants, but for all animals in that ecosystem.

Looking Ahead

In just five years, SAFE has come a long way in finding its own voice, and amplifying the voices of AZA-accredited facilities. Some of those closest to the program, like Wharton, said that its effectiveness lies, in part, in AZA’s willingness to grow and change.

“I think it’s definitely the most important work we do. And I’m happy that SAFE has continually allowed itself to evolve and not felt stuck in its original mode. As long as it’s willing to look at itself critically, and respond, then I think it’ll only get more and more effective,” said Wharton.

Bergl said he looks forward to seeing what the future holds for SAFE.

“The threat focus is still very emergent so I think it has the potential to be really important in the next iteration of SAFE,” he said.

AZA elevated discussions around shared threats in 2019, working with members to highlight links across SAFE species threats and the existing work of AZA members and their partners to address these threats. This built a foundation to engage members at another level of collaboration and multi-disciplinary work. In 2021, AZA will launch ACT as part of its 2021 Party for the Planet events. In the interim, AZA is working with members, SAFE species programs, directors, conservation partners, and others to build a multi-disciplinary framework to take on the most pressing issues in conservation.

There’s much more to come, said Ripple, as AZA and others work together and learn from one another.

“By focusing not only on specific species but also the shared challenges confronting them, we hope to inspire a social movement within and outside of AZA-accredited facilities that can contribute to a world where people and wildlife thrive together.”

Kate Silver is a writer based in Chicago, Ill.  

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