By: Jessica Steiner, Conservation Programs Director

California condors were near extinction when their Species Survival Plan began.  

Some species exist only because of the efforts of aquariums and zoos. 

To save it from extinction, the last remaining 27 California condors were taken into breeding facilities in the mid 1980s.  It is only through this gallant effort that condors exist in the wild today. Other species, such as the Guam Kingfisher, are still waiting for their chance at reintroduction.  With the fate of a species at stake, coordination is vital. That’s where Species Survival Plan Programs come in.

Species Survival Plans (SSP) are cooperative breeding programs coordinated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The SSPs ensure that all participating zoos are working together to ensure the long-term health and survival of the population that is in human care.

While it may seem easier to keep your entire breeding population at one location, breeding populations are actually spread across several facilities. While space limitations are one reason for this, prudent management is another – it is not wise to literally have “all your eggs in one basket” when you are working with all that may be left of a population.

Although each institution may only have a few individuals, the population is managed as a whole to maximize its genetic diversity. SSPs develop comprehensive Studbooks which maintain detailed information on the lineages and reproductive history of every individual in the population which is used to make breeding recommendations. Based on those recommendations, animals may need to be transferred between zoos, a task of the SSP Program Coordinator. This type of cooperative management is critical to the health and sustainability of the population.

In addition to overseeing population management within partner institutions, SSPs also work to enhance conservation in the wild. Members participate in a variety of species conservation, research, husbandry and educational initiatives to promote and support field projects. Zoos bring expertise in husbandry, nutrition, behaviour, genetics, wildlife veterinary care and reproductive technologies which can greatly enhance and expedite recovery projects for our threatened and endangered species. 

There are currently almost 500 SSP Programs. But this doesn’t mean 500 endangered species. With space being a limiting factor you would hope that those species in most critical need were being prioritized, but there is growing criticism of and from within the zoo community that the vast majority of SSP programs, and upcoming candidate programs, are for those considered Least Concern. 

In these cases, the role of the SSP is really to ensure a sustainable population to service exhibit needs, so that the species is not lost from the collective zoo collection. With the value of zoos under constant public scrutiny, there is a real need for zoos to re-examine which species are afforded precious space and find ways to increase capacity for species facing extinction in the wild. 

All that being said, SSPs are formal designations, and much of the same can and does exist for species outside of SSPs. A good example would be our recovery program for loggerhead shrike, which functions like an SSP, and Wildlife Preservation Canada like the SSP Coordinator, but without the formal titles.

The black and white lemur is critically endangered due to habitat loss. The Oregon Zoo is part of the SSP for this species. Photo: Oregon Zoo

The river hippo was given a SSP when it was listed as Least Concern. Unfortunately, their status has decreased to Vulnerable, making the SSP all the more important.

This is partly due to the more localized critical status of loggerhead shrike in eastern Canada, and the Ontario origins of the conservation breeding program. But as loggerhead shrike populations continue to decline across their range and we continue to expand our efforts and resulting partnerships across a greater geographic area into the U.S., there may be reason to seek this formal AZA recognized status in future. 

This loggerhead shrike is nesting at the Toronto Zoo as part of a collaborative conservation breeding program with Wildlife Preservation Canada and other partners.

Jessica Steiner,
Conservation Programs Director

Jessica joined Wildlife Preservation Canada in 2006 as a shrike field biologist in the Carden Area. The following year she began managing all aspects of the Loggerhead Shrike Recovery Program in Ontario as a Species Recovery Biologist. In 2014, Jessica became the Conservation Programs Director, overseeing all of our species recovery projects. Jessica lives in Brampton with her partner, and two energetic boys, and various furry family members. She loves experiencing the marvels of nature renewed through her children’s eyes, whether it be flipping rocks in the garden, chance animal encounters, or deciphering tracks in the snow.