Back To The Wild: Captive Breeding Success Stories

By Benjamin Elisha Sawe on February 16 2020 in Environment

Grand Cayman Blue Iguana
Grand Cayman Blue Iguana
  • DDT poisoning decimated the California condor populations to a mere 22 birds by 1982. Captive breeding program helped to revive the population.
  • Bamboo Lemur was believed to have gone extinct in the early twentieth century but a rediscovery of a population and captive breeding allowed the population bounce back to around 500 individuals in present times.
  • Captive breeding programs at Salina Reserve also helped revive Grand Cayman blue iguana population.

Captive breeding involves capturing wild species, breeding, and raising them in special facilities under the care of wildlife experts. It is an expensive undertaking and sometimes may not work. Some species like the giant pandas hardly breed well in captivity. However, captive breeding, in general, has, most of the time, had fabulous results, and there are numerous reasons to carry it out. If the population of a particular species has dropped significantly to worrying numbers, then captive breeding is the best approach to boost the numbers. It is ideal in situations where the numbers have reduced, and the habits are suitable to support them. After breeding, the young ones are released into the wild. For instance, the population of Whooping Cranes in the 1960s had dropped to alarming levels. In 1967, the biologists used captive breeding to safeguard the species. Eggs of the bird were collected from the remaining cranes, and after several years of captive breeding, the species was saved from extinction. If the habitats have been destroyed, then the captive populations could be maintained until their habitats have been restored or other suitable habitats are identified. The approach allows scientists to bank the species in captivity until a suitable habitat is found.     

Black-Footed Ferret

These North American predators once roamed the American grasslands in huge numbers before their numbers declined due to extensive loss of their habitat, diseases, and hunting. By 1979, with no single individual spotted in a long time, they were declared extinct. The situation remained the same until the discovery of a small population of the species in a Wyoming ranch. The little victory was, however, short-lived as disease swept the area leaving only 18 black-footed ferrets alive. A breeding program was immediately initiated, and the small predator was saved and re-released into the wild. There are currently more than 1000 individuals across the Western US, northern Mexico, and Canada. More work is in play to increase the numbers to 10,000, which is a step closer to declaring black-footed ferrets safe.

California Condor

With a wingspan of about 9.5 feet, these giant birds of Western US once colonized the whole expanse between the Pacific coast to California, that was before their habitat came into ruin, and DDT poisoning decimated their populations to a mere 22 birds by 1982. Swift action followed, and all the surviving condors in the wild were captured and placed into captive breeding programs across the Western US. The move started bearing fruits, but progress was slowed down by the fact that Condors cannot reproduce until they hit six years. The problem was solved by artificial incubation, and the chicks were raised by people wearing puppet condor heads to mimic their parents. In 1992, the California Condor attained a stable population, and they were released into the wild in Arizona and California. Currently, their population stands at about 1000 birds.

The Golden Lion Tamarin

The Golden Lion Tamarin is a marmoset that is native to the eastern rainforests of Brazil. It was driven to the brink of extinction in the 1960s when their population was reduced to only 150 individuals due to poaching for illegal trade. The golden lion tamarinds are highly sought after for their beautiful coats that fetch exceptionally high prices in the black markets. A captive breeding program was set into motion in 140 zoos worldwide in 1989, and over the next two decades, the numbers increased to 3,200 individuals both in the wild and in captivity. The re-introduction of the golden lion tamarin in the wild has not been smooth as was expected as they find it very hard to re-adapt to life outside captivity, especially the young ones.

Arabian Oryx

The Arabian Oryx is probably the first-ever captive breeding success story that dates back to the 1960s. Excessive hunting from as early as the 1900s pushed the Arabian Oryx to the brink of extinction. By 1972, there were none left in the wild. A captive breeding program in Phoenix was started with only nine individuals, and by 1982, they had been reintroduced into the wild after attaining stable populations. The current population of the Arabian Oryx is between 6,000 and 7,000 individuals, with the majority of them in zoos and reserves. There are about 1,000 individuals in the wild in Saudi Arabia, Oman, Israel, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates.

Mauritius Kestrel

The recovery of this rare bird is regarded as one of the most spectacular comebacks ever staged on earth. By 1974, there were only four of them left in the wild, three males and one female. Their demise was brought about by human settlements that destroyed their habitat within 400 years of their arrival on the island. The introduction of cats, rats, mongooses, and monkeys in the isle posed another danger to the kestrels as these animals started hunting the birds and feeding on their eggs. In the 1950s, after a malaria outbreak, heavy use of DDT to clear mosquitoes resulted in the death of many animals native to the island, and the kestrel was no exception. Despite these high odds, a conservation effort was started in 1974, and the four remaining birds were placed in captive breeding programs. By 1994 a stable free-living population was attained, and by 2000, the Mauritius Kestrel had achieved the Vulnerable status from Critically Endangered. 

Rodrigues Fruit Bat

Found only in the Indian Ocean’s island of Rodrigues, the Rodrigues Fruit Bat nearly disappeared in 1979 when only 70 of them were left in the wild. At the end of the World War in 1945, Rodrigues Island was heavily deforested to create land for farming, and in the process, the bats lost their natural habitat, and their numbers started to dwindle as a result. Swift action was taken by the Jersey Preservation Trust that took 25 fruit bats into captivity and began a breeding program on Channel Island in 1976. The success of the Channel Island program led to the establishment of another program on Mauritius, and today, and there are more than 16 zoos around the world that host the bats. The current population stands at 20,000.

Greater Bamboo Lemur

Native only to Madagascar, the Bamboo Lemur was believed to have gone extinct in the early twentieth century. The situation changed in 1972 when they were rediscovered. Scientists immediately set up a captive breeding program, and the current population stands at 500 individuals in the wild. Unfortunately for the lemurs, deforestation, climate change, diseases, constrained sources of food, and hunting are still rampant in Madagascar. Despite their slowly increasing numbers, the bamboo lemurs are still critically endangered. 

Grand Cayman Blue Iguanas

A combination of habitat loss, road-related mortalities, predation by dogs and cats, and hunting, the number of blue iguanas dropped to only 25 individuals. The situation had them listed as critically endangered, and the captive breeding program was started. Salina Reserve, sitting on a 625-acre piece of land, was chosen as the site for this recovery. The current population of the Grand Cayman Blue Iguanas stands at 750 individuals and continue rising.

White Rhinoceros

The story of the White Rhinoceros is one of triumph and defeat at the same time. On the one hand, there is the Southern White Rhinoceros, which is bouncing back from years of senseless poaching and currently stands at an impressive population of about 20,000. On the other hand, however, is the sad state of the Northern White Rhino, which is critically endangered with only two confirmed individuals left, both female and in captivity. The fate of the Northern White Rhino appears to be sealed, although efforts are still underway to try to save the rhino. Scientists around the world have been trying to find ways to revive the species, and there has been little progress. The Southern White Rhino population, which was down to 50 individuals in some parts at one point, is now flourishing across East and Southern Africa regions. One of the most notable conservancies behind this exceptional accomplishment is the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya.

What the Future Holds?

The fight to save endangered species does not show any signs of slowing any time soon. On the contrary, doubling down on the efforts to save them and the vigilance from preserving the ones that remain seem to be the only path left. Human populations keep growing so fast, and this is equally followed by the decimation of the natural habitats of wildlife. Finding the balance between the two remains the biggest challenge to ensuring both sides co-exist without the destruction of the other. Climate change is also another big culprit responsible for the acceleration of the extinction pace. These natural shifts in the climate have the undesirable effect of reducing some species, making them rarer, which in turn accelerates poaching as the demand to be in their possession increases. The fight to save the planet is a never-ending one with losses and wins, but it is the small wins of reviving a whole species from the brink of total extinction that brings hope for the future.

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