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SOS Rhino : In the News : Exotic extinction looms in zoos

Exotic extinction looms in zoos

  Andrew Darby
August 5, 2006

The Sydney Morning Herald

SAY goodbye to the African elephant, the black rhinoceros and jaguar, for sure. Possibly to the leopard, the polar bear and hippopotamus as well. Most exotic mammals in Australia's zoos are headed for local extinction.

The number of foreign species that the public can see will start to shrink from 127 mammals to as few as 31 in years to come, a survey of the zoos has found.

Long reliant on imports rather than breeding, the institutions have hit trouble in a changing world. Tighter wildlife trade rules and stricter quarantine in the face of more virulent diseases such as bird flu are increasingly keeping animals out, and local numbers are too low to breed.

Icons such as the lion, gorilla and giraffe are currently viable, but two zoo researchers, Suzy Barlow and Chris Hibbard, warn "the Australasian regional exotic mammal collection is in crisis … and urgent action is needed to address the threats".

"While the crisis is immediately apparent in exotic mammals, these effects are being felt with exotic bird and reptile species, and will increasingly impact native collections."

Their survey, Going, Going Gone. A zoo without exotic mammals? was conducted for the Australasian Regional Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria. The alarming change it shows includes the loss of 30 out of the 46 different primates - monkeys and their relatives. There would be only eight carnivore species left out of 31 now, and even open-range zoos face a crisis in African hoofed animals such as the hippo.

"The majority of exotic mammal species in our collections are spiralling down a 'tunnel' of extinction, which, depending on the average lifespan of individual specimens is anticipated during the next five to 15 years."

The survey was conducted as Sydney and Melbourne zoos prepared to welcome eight Asian elephants in November. This controversial import survived a lengthy challenge by the Federal Government, and then animal welfare groups, to its claimed conservation benefit.

But zoos still claim a strong role in animal conservation for endangered species. "This is not just about animals in zoos for people to engage with and learn about," Guy Cooper, the director of Sydney's Taronga Zoo, said of the survey. "It's very much about keeping animals as insurance against collapse. I think this is in many ways an international challenge. It's not just something that exists in Australia."

The association's executive director, Jonathan Wilcken, said one of the most pressing problems was the length of time it took to have import risk assessments conducted by Biosecurity Australia. "There is a significant backlog of work for zoo animals that do not lack a conservation imperative,' Mr Wilcken said. "We have no problem with a very cautious approach. But what we are facing is delays of years."

A Biosecurity Australia spokesman, John Wilson, said the complexity of assessing some animals for safe import meant that the process could take months or years. "We do want to work with conservation programs," he said. "We have 130 staff and we do need to prioritise work."

The Asian elephant import ran foul of the Federal Environment Department, which said the plan fell "well short" of demonstrating enough conservation benefit.

The Humane Society International campaigns manager, Nicola Beynon, said that Australian zoos should focus on captive breeding programs for endangered native species.

"Captive breeding is best achieved in the species' home country where they can be more readily re-introduced to the wild, and kinder to the animal's welfare," Ms Beynon said.

"Only very occasionally is an ex-situ breeding program warranted, justifying the import of exotic mammals into Australia, and it should only be done when it is part of a globally agreed IUCN [International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources] action plan rather than a self-interested zoo plan."

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