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Moving Forward Together

By Mary Ellen Collins
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SAFE and Sustainable Conservation

Returning to business as usual within the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ community may sound like something to hope for, but given the reality of COVID-related challenges, it may be some time before that’s achievable.

AZA-accredited facilities are driven by their conservation missions and their conservation support is often times the cornerstone of their animal and education programs. As zoos and aquariums deal with staff and budget cuts; potential reductions in philanthropy; travel restrictions and an absence of ecotourism; they are being forced to take a hard look at how to maintain their commitment to conservation. 

“The challenge is, ‘How do you keep one eye on trying to advance your mission while keeping the other eye on stabilizing operations?” said Chris Kuhar, executive director at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo in Cleveland, Ohio, and chair, AZA board. “We have to stabilize our funding and determine the most important places to put our conservation dollars.  We need to be efficient, not wasteful.”

While facing the challenge of continuing to fund and advance conservation on their own, it makes sense for zoos and aquariums to consider a more collaborative approach. All ecosystems—including institutions—go through an adaptive cycle during any time of significant disruption. Understanding that cycle from the perspective of our members lends credence to the idea of the partner-based SAFE: Saving Animals from Extinction programs being a viable solution to maintain our commitment to conservation even when resources are limited.

“The adaptive cycle framework helps us understand how interdependent all living systems are, and what happens as they move and evolve,” said Zosia Brown, resource, procurement, and sustainability supervisor at Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle, Wash., and chair of AZA’s Green Scientific Advisory Group. “While there are many benefits to maintaining the status quo, when an event or shift happens, it can force a release of energy and present new opportunities. Similarly, with zoo/aquarium sustainability and conservation programs, we can save more wildlife and habitat, and certainly respond better to disruptions if we can coordinate, leverage each other’s strengths, and collectively explore new opportunities.”

What’s in it for You? 

AZA-accredited facilities’ identity as conservation organizations is deeply ingrained, with many of them having done their own conservation programs for decades. Although SAFE is a relatively new program, 70 percent of AZA members are already participating in it. It may take time to reach 100 percent, but the pandemic could prove be a catalyst that moves the community more quickly towards that number.

Western lowland gorilla

“Programs have inertia,” said Kuhar. “You may have been dealing with a partner for 20 years, and you don’t want to say, ‘We’re going to defund you so we can work over there.’ I hope we’ll see organizations move from individual models of conservation toward more unified programs, but cultural change won’t happen overnight.”

He encourages facilities to have an open mind and “take a good, long look at what would work for you. If your zoo has gorillas, for example, there’s a SAFE gorilla program. Go and find out what it does. Might it be the most effective place to put your resources?”

Pandemic-related revenue losses and the increasing complexity of conservation issues are two factors that may push the community to better understand how their resources can be put together for greater impact.

“Everyone is competing for the same money and resources,” said Dr. Debborah Luke, senior vice president, conservation at The Florida Aquarium in Tampa, Fla. “I think we grew up in an atmosphere where grant funds and big donor funds came into programs that were really well-established, and those programs were siloed. But conservation issues have become so complex because there aren’t just one or two factors that affect a species. You’re seeing a shift in the culture—that it takes the expertise of many to work at solving issues comprehensively. Funders are looking now at funding projects that are collaborative, not just a simple one and done. SAFE puts an active conservation focus for a taxon into a well thought out plan where everyone can play a role.”

The SAFE program framework not only benefits facilities with varying degrees of experience, but also enhances the reputation of the profession as a whole, according to Lisa Kelley, executive director of WildCare at the Saint Louis Zoo in Saint Louis, Mo., and Wildlife Conservation Committee coordinator for SAFE.

“If you have SAFE species and are doing conservation anyway, this is a very effective way to amplify the message that AZA-accredited facilities are wildlife conservation leaders. And for institutions that don’t have a history of field conservation and don’t know how to get started, SAFE gives them the experience and confidence to become leaders.” 

White backed vulture
Photo Credit: © North Carolina Zoo

In a time of disruption, SAFE is perfectly set up to maximize and leverage resources of all kinds, providing like-minded partners and eliminating the need to start working from scratch. While the reference to “resources” may include financial support for conservation, it also includes the valuable skill-set of staff at member organizations. SAFE opens opportunities for educators, marketers, advocacy experts and more to come together for a single purpose. If your organization is passionate about saving a specific species, an easy way to double your impact could be joining a SAFE species program.

“You tap into a motivated, engaged, expert group of people that have knowledge, connections, and inspiration that you can benefit from immediately,” said Kristen Lukas, director of conservation and science at Cleveland MetroParks Zoo and chair, SAFE gorilla program. “Every institution is different and every SAFE program is different, but when you see a team that’s winning, you want to be a part of it.”

A Collective Effort 

SAFE’s collaborative partnership model includes working closely with communities in the field, which supports a move toward focusing on both animals and people. This may prove beneficial when facing limited resources as we move forward in this changed world.

Roger Sweeney, director of animal management welfare at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C, recently proposed the SAFE Asian hornbill program, a natural progression of his work with the IUCN Species Survival Commission (SSC) Asian hornbill specialist group that is based in field biology.

“This was an opportunity to look at SAFE as being a bridge between the AZA community and the scientists to bring the best out in both,” he said. Even though several potential partners wanted to delay the SAFE program proposal once the pandemic took hold, the Nashville Zoo in Nasheville, Tenn., and the Phoenix Zoo in Phoenix, Ariz., joined Sweeney on moving it forward because they wanted to double down on their commitment.

Gold finch

He emphasized the importance of partnering with local organizations and communities long before he was involved with SAFE, citing conservation planning workshops that included educators, farmers, field biologists, and representatives from local government and forestry agencies.

“You need to be a partner on the ground to develop those long-term relationships. You have to get to know the people, be very visible, and show them you’ll be with them year after year. We’re using our knowledge and skills to help their communities and support them in doing their best conservation planning and work.”

For Jake Owens, director of conservation at the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles, Calif., the value of collaboration between zoos and field organizations became evident when he was in China as a field conservationist at the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding in China.

“We kept seeking out people to help us, which included seeking out partnerships with zoos. That’s when I first saw the natural link. Zoos had skills and expertise we didn’t have because they deal with animals from birth to death. They are serious conservation organizations with a unique capacity. One of our most effective partnerships was with the Smithsonian National Zoo. They had a very skilled wildlife veterinarian who came and stayed for a year. He not only trained our veterinarians, he trained our field team, who didn’t have any medical or veterinary experience.”

Now that he is working for the Los Angeles Zoo, Owens remains committed to a partnership model in all of their conservation efforts. 

“We will certainly continue to expand our involvement in SAFE programs as we focus and increase the efficacy of our conservation program, as we did in March by joining the SAFE North American songbird program. The roundtable we are putting together as we develop our Conservation Strategic Plan is primarily focused on exploring new collaborations with local organizations. However, we often discuss the SAFE programs in these meetings, as they are important to the broader discussions.”

Lappet-faced vulture

Photo Credit: © Denver Zoo

The pandemic has shed light on the notion that the way we did conservation “before” was costly and perhaps unsustainable for business practices long-term. Although the way forward is not yet completely clear, the AZA ecosystem is in the phase of the adaptability cycle where we have experienced a shift that has created new challenges, and as a result, new opportunities. Increasing participation in SAFE species programs is an opportunity that checks many of the boxes that are necessary for more sustainable and long-term commitments to conservation.

“SAFE encourages us to commit to more focused conservation planning, more strategic goal setting, and better evaluation,” said Sweeney. “It gets us to commit to a three-year plan … and it’s more effective at showing the impact of what we’re doing. SAFE programs tell a story of hope.”

Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.


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