Sea ice is melting. Forests are burning. Species are clinging to survival. If you’re reading or watching the news and you care about the environment, holy crap, is it an awkward time to be a human. Sorry, planet Earth, our bad.
… But, it’s also an exciting time to be human. Because as much as we have a tendency to mess things up, we’re also really good at solving problems. We love figuring out how things work and why. We have heart. We care. We want to make things right.
If you haven’t visited a zoo since your fourth grade field trip, it may surprise you to know that some of our best problem solvers, with the most heart, are zoo biologists. There are multiple species that could have gone the way of the dodo and the thylacine — but didn’t, thanks to the tireless effort of zoos, staff biologists, and their dedication to a Species Survival Plan.
Let’s meet five species successfully protected by zoos:
One of the world’s most endangered canids — and the world’s most endangered wolf — the red wolf is a uniquely American species that once roamed throughout the southeastern U.S. Hunting, superstition (European settlers have a lot of tales about big, bad wolves), and habitat loss changed that, dramatically.
By 1969, the once prolific animal was listed as an endangered species. With fewer and fewer partners to choose from, red wolves were increasingly hybridizing with coyotes, diluting the remaining population. If the wolf was going to be saved, it was going to take one heck of a Hail Mary. Enter the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium and the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, who worked in conjunction to establish a breeding program based on the 14 animals left of a species declared biologically extinct in the wild by 1980. A mere seven years later, the first red wolves were reintroduced into North Carolina, and today, more than 100 exist in the wild.
California is famous for a lot of things. Hollywood. Disneyland. A flag with an extinct subspecies of grizzly on it. With that in mind, there’s no way they were losing the California condor, as well. With only 23 of the birds gracing the skies in the early 1980s, San Diego Zoo and partners coordinated a plan to bolster their numbers, carefully helping wild condors to raise baby birds, while ensuring none of the young imprinted on humans. The hard work of the zoologists paid off in spades; today, more than 200 condors live in the wild, and are on their way to attaining a self-sustaining population.