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The Value of the SSP Sustainability Award

By Sean Foley
min read

The Henkel’s Leaf-tailed Gecko Species Survival Plan® (SSP) program has been around for more than twenty-five years, which is a significant amount of time considering the species was only described in 1990. Over much of the program’s lifespan, the managed population struggled to gain solid footing, celebrating success one year, only to have a number of setbacks the next.

In response to this boom and bust cycle, the program leader, along with assistance from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Population Management Center (PMC), formulated a goal-based plan to create a more stable and sustainable population. And it worked spectacularly, culminating in 2019, when the Henkel’s Leaf-tailed Gecko SSP was awarded AZA’s SSP Sustainability Award.

Throughout zoos and aquariums, there are quite a few species that don’t necessarily get a lot of attention or publicity but, nevertheless, have amazing stories to be told. The Henkel’s leaf-tailed gecko probably falls into this category. However, by winning this award, the program was suddenly cast into the spotlight, giving me, the program leader, an opportunity to tell this gecko’s tale to a wider-than-normal audience.

Adult and juvenile Henkel's leaf-tailed gecko

Although often individually driven, AZA’s SSPs need the support of our member facilities, be it through time allowance or financial assistance. This award was obviously very meaningful for me as the program leader but was also significant for Riverbanks Zoo and Garden in Columbia, S.C., which has invested in this program for over a quarter century. Through this recognition, our Zoo management was able to see that their investment had paid off.

After the award was announced at the AZA Mid-Year Meeting in April of 2019, Riverbanks Zoo and Garden created a post for its Facebook page to celebrate the good news. This was shared widely and brought instant accolades from Zoo visitors, friends, and zoo professionals from across the country. One of our local news channels picked up the story and came out to the Zoo to highlight our work with this species and other leaf-tailed geckos.

Being able to talk about these amazing animals and all their adaptations and how they are important ambassadors for rainforest ecology all over the world was a wonderful experience.  

Close-up of a Henkel's leaf-tailed gecko face

There are so many successful SSPs that deserve to be recognized for their progress toward more sustainable populations. I would encourage other program leaders to apply for this award so that they can get their species in the spotlight and share their good news. It’s also valuable for other program leaders to be able see what steps successful SSPs have taken to create more sustainable populations. What works for one SSP may work for another SSP. Now more than ever, we need to lean on each other, learn from each other, and celebrate our successes with each other.

The application can be found on the AZA website at and should be submitted to Rob Vernon by 18 December 2020.

Photos Credit: © Riverbanks Zoo and Garden

Sean Foley is the curator of herpetology at Riverbanks Zoo and Garden and the SSP coordinator and studbook keeper for Henkel’s, giant, satanic, mossy, and lined leaf-tailed geckos.

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