Frozen Zoos to Save Animals: Wildlife Conservation on Ice

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In a south-eastern suburb in Melbourne, there’s a zoo. It has no visitors, and there are no animals anywhere inside it. Rather, the Australian Frozen Zoo houses living cells and genetic material from Australian native and rare and exotic species. This place, and others like it, could be a big part of the future of conservation. Department of Biological Sciences’ Simon Clulow and his colleagues make the case for ‘biobanking’ in a recent piece in Conservation Letters.

Clulow is keen to stress that this doesn’t mean getting rid of conventional zoos or captive breeding programs. “Captive breeding has had some wonderful successes, and there will always be a huge place for it,” he says.

PhD student and lead author Lachlan Howell agrees. “It was captive breeding that brought the giant panda back from the brink of extinction caused by a combination of habitat loss and poaching. It Is captive breeding that is likely to save the Tasmanian devil from being wiped out by devil facial tumor disease.”

Rather, the researchers want to create awareness of the “massive potential” to save funding, reduce the number of captive animals required in breeding programs and thus conserve more species with existing resources, by incorporating biobanked sperm into captive populations using assisted reproductive technologies.

“Using frozen zoos could provide a 25-fold increase in the number of species that could be conserved. This would be a staggering conservation achievement.”

Clulow, who has considerable experience of preserving viable frozen genetic material, says, “Using frozen zoos could provide a 25-fold increase in the number of species that could be conserved. This would be a staggering conservation achievement, and we think it can be done.”

As it stands, there is limited money for conservation programs, meaning that many species needing captive breeding to survive will miss out, the researchers say.

Captive breeding is expensive. Starting a captive breeding program costs hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars. Maintaining the program will cost, on average, more than $200,000 a year for a single species. Many programs are open-ended and will have to continue for years or even decades to achieve their objectives.

Those species that are lucky enough to be selected for captive breeding almost immediately face another hurdle – loss of genetic diversity.  After only one generation of captive breeding, genes are already starting to be lost, the researchers say.

In just a few generations, animals which are the most likely to thrive and breed in captivity… Brinkwire News Summary.

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