“We’re losing the conservation battle,” said Dan Ashe, president and chief executive officer at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “There’s no way to objectively look at the data and conclude that we’re winning.”
That’s a stark statement that should be daunting to anyone who cares about wildlife, and that includes every member of AZA.
Losing the battle does not stem from a lack of commitment. There are hundreds if not thousands of conservation projects across the world that are aimed at ensuring the sustainability of threatened species. However, a lack of collaboration and coordination among them can stand in the way of measurable progress. Ashe and others believe that SAFE programs offer an ideal solution.
SAFE provides strategic conservation roadmaps that encourage collaboration and leverage collective expertise, thereby enabling all participants to be a part of making a real difference. Although an increasing number of AZA members—about 73 percent currently—are taking part in one or more SAFE programs, Ashe believes that number should be 100 percent.
One of the most common reasons zoo and aquarium leaders give for not participating in SAFE is a desire to stick with their established way of doing things. Some institutions want to keep their focus on the conservation work they’re already engaged in; others want to continue supporting organizations they’ve been supporting for decades. But Ashe challenged those reasons.
[Related Story: Saving Animals From Extinction in Africa]
“We can’t be comfortable and satisfied with saying, ‘I think we’re already doing a good job’ or ‘We provide support to this good partner, and they’re doing good work.’ A lot of our members have long-term relationships that can be barriers to change, and that’s true across the conservation field. But during COVID when this community had to change, they did. They changed on a dime.
“If I could ban two words from the lexicon, it would be ‘good work.’ It might be good work, but is it the right work? Is it the best work? Is it accomplishing what we want to accomplish? We should all be willing to challenge our assumptions. We need to think disruptively and reinvent what we’re doing. We have to innovate.”
SAFE programs support a move from a facility-by-facility approach to one that is more collaborative and inclusive, a critical change that is necessary if we are to make measurable progress.
“There’s a lot of success at the project level, but we have to do conservation at scales that are more meaningful,” said Ashe. “For example, why don’t we have a SAFE African elephant program? Lots of our members are doing good projects on elephants on their own, but they’re disconnected from each other. We can’t do this piecemeal.”
SAFE participants agree that the program framework has multiple benefits.
“When you’re working with more collaborators it takes more time and effort to get together and communicate, but the collaboration and learning from each other and being able to utilize each other’s strengths is the beauty of SAFE,” said Lisa Kelley, executive director of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute in St. Louis, Mo. “You’re working with the same goal. It’s not fragmented. It’s more streamlined, which leads to more impact. SAFE gives you the opportunity to feel empowered to be part of a collective conservation effort.”
That sense of empowerment is a definite selling point, as it enables institutions of all types and sizes to have a voice and a seat at the same table.
[Related story: Waddle We Do Without Penguins?]
“We have a 12-member steering committee that includes representatives from small organizations, like Jenkinson’s Aquarium to extra-large, like the Shedd Aquarium,” said Hap Fatzinger, director at North Carolina Aquarium at Fort Fisher and SAFE sharks and rays program leader. “Especially for facilities that don’t have a conservation department or staff, SAFE provides an opportunity and a platform to get directly involved.”
In addition, for institutions that are engaged in meaningful conservation on their own, integrating that work with SAFE is not only possible, but can be a winning proposition, said Kelley, whose Wildcare Institute participates in 11 SAFE programs in addition to having a robust conservation effort.
“Our North American songbird program and our crocodile conservation and research program in Cuba are aligned with the North American songbird and Cuban crocodile SAFE programs, and as we evolve, I would like to be even more intentional with how our conservation priorities can be represented through SAFE programs. Integrating a zoo’s conservation efforts with existing SAFE programs is a smart thing to do when it makes sense, that is to say, if it can bolster, rather than dilute, one’s own existing conservation work.”
SAFE programs have multiple strategic objectives which require an array of skill sets and experience, creating a welcoming environment where everyone — AZA members as well as their conservation partners—can play to their strengths in achieving a common goal. Fatzinger cites a few examples from an international list of contributors to SAFE sharks and rays.
“Paul Cox, chief executive of the Shark Trust, has been engaged with the SAFE program for six years as a conservation partner working mostly on public engagement aspects of the original conservation plan. Paul increased his role in November 2019 when he joined the leadership of SAFE sharks and rays as vice program leader. Not only is Paul engaged in communication of conservation objectives and their implications with our program, he and his Shark Trust team also bring insights and policy expertise for sharks and rays and supportive relationships with other NGO’s.
“Lisa Hoopes from the Georgia Aquarium and Paula Carlson from Dallas World Aquarium have incredible experience with husbandry of sharks and rays and I’ve worked with them for decades. Both are collaborators on the handling body of work; and also represent IUCN as co-chairs of the Species Survival Commission, Shark Specialist Group’s Aquarium Working Group. Through this relationship, SAFE is ensuring support for global conservation efforts as they align with priorities of the IUCN.”
When faced with formidable challenges and limited resources, AZA member directors must make investment decisions that are thoughtful and informed.
“I would love to see more of an effort for institutions to make SAFE an automatic part of their conservation funding strategy,” said Fatzinger. “We have a Conservation Action Committee with representatives from across all of our sites. This makes it more inclusive for our teams to be involved in the process of deciding what efforts we’re going to contribute to. With sea turtles, we have representatives on the committee; with corals, it’s currently in-kind; and with sharks and rays, it’s time, money, and effort.”
Sometimes making a financial contribution―large or small―to an organization or effort is exactly what is needed to make a difference, but sometimes it’s little more than a checkbox.
“Does writing a check mean ‘This makes me feel good’ or ‘I am committed to saving a species?’” said Shelly Grow, AZA’s vice president of conservation and science.
[Related story: Conservation Resiliency]
She urged AZA leaders to maximize the likelihood that their donations are making a difference by choosing SAFE programs and their clearly delineated objectives, workplans, and recovery plans. “SAFE makes it easy to make a meaningful commitment. And, you have ownership in the success.”
January is the perfect to time to seriously consider your conservation investment portfolio and ask, “Does this reflect our commitment to saving wildlife?” Read through the online SAFE program plans and see that wherever your interests lie, there are multiple ways to get involved. Familiarizing yourself with plans for species you’re passionate about; and learning about each program’s projects and goals will help identify those that align with your institutional goals and the kind of difference you want to make.
For individuals who still need some convincing about the value of SAFE, Fatzinger said,
“Saving species doesn’t happen overnight. Building the foundation might take 15 to 20 years, but you have to start somewhere. Without SAFE, each of us would be working separately, with some success, but likely with less of an impact. Speaking with a unified voice for the conservation of species is really, really important. This cooperation and collaboration amplify all of our individual efforts and magnify the collective impact. If you’re on the sidelines, identify ways you can be involved. It should be a priority.”
With SAFE, it doesn’t make sense to go it alone.
Mary Ellen Collins is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Fla.