New Orleans,
11:41 AM

BLOG FROM THE FIELD: Audubon's Crane Release Program

Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center's Curator Michelle Hatwood on Managed Animal Release Programs

I’ve worked directly with several great breeding and release programs. Release programs are complicated ventures and there is an extensive list of requirements to determine if a release program will beneficial a particular species. Unfortunately, there is a lot more involved in these programs than just raising animals and releasing them…I wish it were that easy!

The first question we normally ask is: Why does the species have a decreasing wild population or why did they go extinct in the wild in the first place? And, has that problem been solved? If the problem in the wild has not been solved (such as poaching, habitat loss, wildlife trafficking, predation from invasive species, toxic substance in environment, etc.) then we will usually start with in situ conservation initiatives to work on the problem(s) before introducing animals bred and raised in Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) facilities. We want to set up any animal released for success.

Once this major question has been addressed, we also need to answer questions such as: Is there community support? Is the government willing to work with us? Is the habitat viable for the species (proper plant life, food source, water source, shelter availability, other coexisting species, etc.)? Is there a robust breeding program in zoos that can produce a genetically healthy population that is great enough in numbers to create a successful growing wild population? Is the knowledge available or has the research been done on behavior and physiological factors that will affect the success of released animals? Is there a sustainable financial source for long-term support of resources needed for breeding, raising, releasing and following-up on released animals?

Most release programs run for many years before wild populations stabilize enough to allow the supporting zoos or aquariums to become completely hands-off. In my experience, birds are some of the hardest species to successfully save through breeding and release programs from a behavior perspective, but one of the taxon groups that needs the most help.

Unfortunately, for many species (in my opinion, too many), a release program is not possible due to lack of suitable habitat or present threats. In these cases, zoos attempt to maintain genetically and demographically sustainable populations, to ensure the species will exist despite what is happening in the wild. This will ensure that healthy animals will be around for the future, in case changes are made in their native habitat. Zoos, also provide important educational lessons to visiting guests that species are important and we’re losing something amazing in the world as biodiversity shrinks.

Luckily, I’ve gotten to personally work with and around some of the most endangered species in the world that have or are benefitting from breeding and release programs either run by accredited zoos and aquariums, or with their help and expertise. Some of the species I’ve been fortunate enough to work with are the Arabian oryx, scimitar-horned oryx, mountain bongo, black-footed ferret, pine snakes, Chiricahua leopard frogs, and Chacoan peccaries.

I’ll hopefully be doing a Facebook live talk about the endangered Chacoan peccaries in Paraguay in the next couple weeks. It’s a conservation program that I’ve been working on for several years that Audubon Nature Institute supports, along with a couple other Zoos. I’ve been working with a few colleagues on getting a release program set up in South America, but there are challenges with identifying suitable habitat and community buy in. I’ve done several habitat assessments and we are trying to work with the community and government entities to eventually make this program a reality. Over the next 2 weeks I’ll be down there doing health evaluations on a large population of Chacoan Peccaries born at a breeding center located in the Chaco forest.

All accredited zoos are involved in conservation projects around the world, and many have several programs that they focus most of their time and funds on (such as the crane programs we work with that account for millions of dollars since their inception). Audubon Nature Institute works with many projects and offers many types of conservation support, both in situ and ex situ, and I’m happy to be connected to many of those projects.