“There absolutely is hope for this species, and there will be even more hope if people help. If we only focus on the things that work, it starts to beg the question, ‘Are we doing real conservation?’”
This comment comes from Dr. James Danoff-Burg, director of conservation at The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens, in Palm Desert, Calif. The species he’s referring to is the vaquita porpoise, the most endangered marine mammal on the planet with estimates of less than 30 left.
Much news has surrounded the lengths in which the conservation community has gone to save the vaquita, only found in the Upper Gulf of California, a small stretch of water surrounded by impoverished communities in Mexico. In October 2017, nearly 100 of the world’s leading conservation scientists descended on the area in an unsuccessful attempt to bring a few vaquita into managed care for breeding purposes.
Danoff-Burg’s emphatic response to the “what’s the point?” question is mirrored by impassioned conservationists in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums community working to save species’ on the brink of extinction. While the AZA dedicates generous resources to saving threatened species as part of its AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction program, the conversation of conservation with those trying to revive species with numbers in the hundreds, sometimes even dozens, is a uniquely challenging proposition littered with roadblocks, from the social and economic to the political, ecological and biological.
Here, we discuss how champions of four on-the-brink species—the vaquita, black-footed ferret, red wolf and whooping crane—are battling strong external forces to create sustainable populations.
Confronting Biological and Ecological Hurdles in Costume
Arguably one of the world’s most majestic looking birds, the whooping crane stands at around five feet, weighs less than 20 pounds and has a wingspan of around eight feet. This massive creature was once abundant, but thanks to settlers in the 1800s, faced threats due to habitat loss and hunting. By 1940, there were estimates of around 20 left in the world, spurring conservationists to identify breeding grounds and launch breeding programs.
These programs hit husbandry-related fits and starts until the 1960s when conservationists started collecting eggs and launching a formal whooping crane recovery program. As time marched on, the birds were among the first species listed in the Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the animals’ summer and wintering grounds were identified in wildlife refuges in Canada and Texas. Since then, there has been success in breeding in managed care, but not within the reintroduced populations.
“We’ve identified struggles with habitat issues; pairs are doing great with breeding and producing eggs, but then they are abandoning eggs because of a parasitic black fly,” said Kim Boardman, curator of birds at the International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wis. “We are also seeing predators killing them before they are flighted. Then, some adults are susceptible to power line collisions. And there have been a number of birds being shot maliciously, especially in the southern range.”
Creative husbandry efforts are helping.
“We’ve pioneered a costume-rearing technique where we teach chicks how to go out on prairie walks, roost and find water and grasshoppers,” she said. “Our staff members wear the suit—chicks that hatch in the spring only see a costume; it helps us raise more chicks faster for release because we don’t have enough parents.”
Right now, there are approximately 800 whooping cranes, an impressive increase from the founding population of around 20 in 1940. While this may seem like a high number, Boardman insists that it isn’t enough to create a sustainable population.
“The outlook is promising; it will take time, but I’m hopeful,” she said. “Our recovery plan target is 1,000 individuals—we still have some work ahead of us.”
Over at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va., Paul E. Marinari holds the position of senior curator and stud book keeper of the Black-footed Ferret Species Survival Plan®, a species that was thought to be extinct until fall 1981 when a ranch dog in Wyoming brought a carcass home to its owner. The owner and his wife took the animal to a local taxidermist and the conservation community rejoiced—the animal hadn’t been seen since 1979.
The discovery led to the search for more and radio-collar monitoring, which quickly confounded scientists, as several were dying.
“Biologists on the ground in Wyoming noticed these ferrets dying of canine distemper and sylvatic plague, which is a bacteria harbored in the guts of fleas,” said Marinari. “They also noticed that prairie dogs, which constitute 90 percent of the ferrets’ diet, were dying of the same plague.”
In order to save the species, conservationists decided to rely on breeding in managed care, and between 1985 and 1987 brought in 18 individuals—seven males and 11 females. The husbandry learning curve was steep, especially since the population was thought to be extinct, but strides were made, vaccines were created, reintroduction sites were identified and reintroduction began in 1991.
“Every year since 1991, we’ve returned captive-born black-footed ferrets to reintroduction sites—29 locations in eight states in U.S., Mexico and Canada,” he said. “Currently there are hundreds of black-footed ferrets roaming prairies in North America.”
This may sound like a solid win, but Marinari is quick to point out persistent challenges such as long-term management (and funding) of recovery programs. The health of the prairie dog population is also of utmost importance—without it, ferrets will not survive. And community support is vital—thankfully landowners and zoos have been helpful.
“There are pros and cons of looking like a successful program; some think that if we are successful, we don’t need money and that just isn’t true,” he said. “Yes, we are in better shape because of our gained knowledge through science and partnerships, but this is still a species on the brink. We are trying to do this for 50 years, 100 years. We’ve been at it for 30 years at this point. The minute we take our foot off the gas is the minute we get closer to the plank.”
Facing People Problems
Almost all near-endangered species are faced with ecological challenges, but for some, its people that pose the biggest problems. The red wolf is a prime example. This species has a fraught history that dates back to early American settlers who saw the animal as a threat to livestock and people. By the 1970s, the red wolf was endangered and several were brought into managed care.
In the mid-80s, after some successes with breeding, two pairs were released at a wildlife refuge in North Carolina. Over the next few decades, husbandry knowledge was sharpened and more were released. Wild numbers were looking good—by around 2005-2006, there were known to be around 150 in the wild.
But then, all of a sudden, the population’s number started falling.
“People started killing them,” said Chris Lasher, animal management supervisor, North Woods/Prairie-African Plain at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, N.C., and American Red Wolf Species Survival Plan® coordinator. “There was a recovery plan by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a lack of communication and restrictions on if residents could hunt coyotes or not.”
Those people who had long hunted coyotes were all of a sudden now forbidden because red wolves may have been on their property. Residents couldn’t tell the difference (the species do look similar) and the population declined. Adding to that confusion was the question of whether red wolves in the wild are actually coyote-wolf hybrids or not. If they were found to be hybrids, the species would no longer be protected. At press time, the National Academy of Sciences was assessing the taxonomic status of the red wolf, much to the chagrin of Lasher and his colleagues.
“We are very convinced that, with a proper review, the red wolf will be found to be a true species, but in the meantime we are moving forward with plans to increase the population in human care and maintain the wild population as best we can,” said Lasher. “We want land owners to know that having red wolves on their land enhances their property and makes it healthier by taking out crop-killing rodents and increasing ecotourism. We are focused on bringing awareness and engagement and maintaining an insurance population.”
Back in Palm Desert, Danoff-Burg speaks passionately about how people’s behavior—namely the use of gill nets—has decimated the vaquita population. Following the 2017 rescue attempt, it looks like government and community intervention are the only hopes the conversation community has left.
The problem at this point extends far beyond saving the vaquita. A few years ago, the Mexican government put a provisional ban on gill net fishing, which is the main source of income for the three communities in the Upper Gulf: San Felipe, Puerto Peñasco and El Golfo de Santa Clara. That ban was made official in summer 2018, posing a real problem for people in the area.
“Gill net fishing is how people in those communities fish; you ban gill net fishing and you cripple a community,” said Danoff-Burg. “I’ve heard from many people and read on the news that now those communities, which were safe before, have seen an escalation in illicit activities.”
The solution, said Danoff-Burg, is to involve the communities in developing more sustainable ways of fishing—something the Mexican government has yet to do. “No one wants to be illegal,” he added. “People will do the right thing if they can.”
The conservation community is now shifting its focus on creating sustainable fisheries in the Upper Gulf—to benefit the species and the humans that surround it. Efforts include a campaign to send one million postcards to incoming Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador from U.S. residents and zoos, alerting him of the dire situation in the Upper Gulf and asking for his help for the ecosystem and community at large.
“By doing this, we are also getting the U.S. engaged in this effort. When we ask for the next step—to only eat sustainably-caught seafood in the Upper Gulf—we will have a market ready to help,” he said. “Our postcard campaign has been likened to the mail bag scene from Miracle on 34th Street. That is exactly what we are trying to do.”
Katie Morell is a writer based in Sausalito, Calif.