Tuesday, 27 August 2019 05:24

Captive breeding only works when animals can go home

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By David Suzuki with contributions from Ontario Science Projects Manager Rachel Plotkin

B.C. is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a captive breeding program to protect spotted owls. With an estimated six of the owls left in the wild in Canada, all in B.C., that seems like good news. But while the program includes some habitat protection, the province is also approving logging in habitat the owl needs to survive.

It’s a major flaw in government-led conservation efforts. Stories of captive breeding programs that lead to successful animal re-introduction are happy, but they’re often born out of sad stories about the animals’ plight.

Captive breeding programs are last-ditch efforts to save animals after humans have degraded or destroyed their habitat to the point where it’s difficult for them to survive. In almost every case, experts and regulators are aware of the species’ decline and the reasons behind it, but calls for habitat conservation go unheeded, or efforts are inadequate to ensure the animals can continue.

Species don’t disappear overnight. Activities that degrade and destroy habitat are allowed to continue until a species is driven to point where it can no longer function in the wild and needs human help.

Conservation would work better if land-use management regimes focused on maintaining habitat wildlife needs to survive before it’s too late. Instead, we wait until tipping points have been passed and then scramble to capture animals for breeding.

Captive breeding itself is often controversial, riddled with risks. When humans handle wildlife over generations, animals can become semi-domesticated and lose intergenerational knowledge about survival in nature. Once they’re re-introduced into the wild, many don’t make it.

The odds of captured predators such as tigers and wolves surviving freedom are only 33 per cent, according to recent research, and studies show captive-bred animals are more likely to interact and mate with other captive-bred animals and lose their ability to communicate with wild peers. Another study concluded captive-bred animals may develop behavioural changes such as “decrease in predator avoidance, decrease in foraging abilities, increase in sleeping patterns, decrease in overall activity, and some problems in social behaviors.”

The intergenerational effects are biological as well as cultural. One study showed captive breeding can result in genetic changes between captive and wild lineages, and confinement can make animals more susceptible to disease outbreaks. (A tragic lion-breeding program resulted in the deaths of nearly two dozen “struck by a mysterious disease aggravated by inbreeding and a weakened gene pool.”)

The main issue is the risk of releasing captive-bred wildlife into degraded habitat that couldn’t support it in the first place. Most examples of successful endangered species recovery involve animals facing threats other than habitat loss. Eagles were declining because of DDT contamination until it was banned. Condors were being poisoned by lead in the bodies of the carrion they ate until lead shot was limited.

Read full David Suzuki here

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