A new species of lion has recently been discovered, announced the National Geographic Society a few weeks ago. Were the animals caught by camera trap or spotted by a tracker in the remote regions of Africa? No. They were found — in all places — in an Ethiopian zoo. It’s questionable whether any other representatives of this species are alive in the wild today.
All over the world, the struggle to keep endangered species from going extinct is often played out in zoos or in captive breeding centers. The last known Tasmanian tiger lived out its life in a zoo before it died in 1936, giant pandas are being bred in Chinese reserves and whooping cranes are being raised at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland.
Living in zoos or in other places of captivity, however, changes wild animals — sometimes to the point where behaviorally they little resemble their wild counterparts. But is keeping an altered, threatened wild species from going extinct better than losing it altogether?
In a study recently published in the European Journal of Wildlife Research, scientists, led by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany and the University of York in the United Kingdom, reported that they had identified a previously unknown population of genetically distinct lions in an Addis Ababa zoo. By comparing DNA samples from 15 of these zoo lions to six populations of wild lions, the researchers discovered that the gene sequence of the zoo lions was unique.
The Addis Ababa lions have dark manes and small bodies, unlike other African lions. The animals belonged to Ethiopia’s deceased emperor, Haile Selassie, who established the zoo in 1948. However, the lions’ origins are unknown. It’s postulated that seven founder lions — five males and two females — came from southwestern Ethiopia. It may be that their striking, dark manes proved too alluring to hunters and that is why they are no longer known to exist there.
If there are no more members of this species left in the wild, it won’t be the first lion population to survive only in zoos. Two significant lion populations, the North African Barbary lions and the South African Cape lions, can be found in captivity but have become extinct in the wild.
The Addis Ababa zoo is currently constructing a new facility to house the lions, modeled on their natural environment. The zoo hopes to breed the lions to keep the population alive.
A captive crowd
Some say with extinction rates rising and habitats being destroyed around the globe, zoos are biodiversity’s last best hope. Currently, zoos worldwide are trying to breed about 160 endangered species.
Critics of these efforts, however, state that the idea of a zoo is detrimental to the cause of conservation. They believe that wild animals should not be kept in confinement and that saving a species is doomed to fail under these circumstances, since many animals lose their interest in mating once they are captured. In fact, 83 percent of species being bred in North American zoos are not meeting the targets set for maintaining their genetic diversity, according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. For example, fewer than 20 percent of cheetahs in North American zoos have been able to reproduce. At the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, D.C., the captive population of 281 cheetahs gives birth to only 15 cubs, on average, a year — exactly half of what their keepers estimate is necessary to maintain their numbers.
Such disappointing success rates have led some field conservationists to question whether zoos should be in the breeding business at all. In a closed population, such as in zoos, a high level of genetic diversity is the priority in order to maintain a species’ adaptability and to prevent inbreeding. A kind of reverse natural selection results, with animals that normally would have a low rate of success in the wild often succeeding only because of the rareness of their genes. Many say they would prefer to see the monies spent on breeding programs redirected to preserving wild habitats and species.
In addition, some animals are distinctly unsuited for life in a zoo, such as elephants. In the wild, elephants roam constantly, covering a lot of ground on a daily basis. In captivity, they have no choice but to stand still for long periods of time, putting severe strain on their legs and feet, which leads to chronic injuries.
Yet in their native environments, elephants are heavily poached for ivory, leather and meat. And many elephants in captivity were rescued from circuses, saved from natural disasters or removed from the wild due to abandonment. Would it have been better if these animals had been euthanized or left to die rather than placed in captivity?
Do you think that zoos play a vital part in keeping threatened species from going extinct, even though the results of captivity or of a captive breeding program may not reflect the development of that same animal in the wild?
Feature photo: Extinct in the wild, some lion species survive only in zoos. ©Eric Rock