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Can wild animals kept in zoos or ranched animals, play a role in species conservation?

As Africa’s wild habitats diminish and species are put under more and more pressure, zoo and domesticated wild animals, will play a greater and greater role in species conservation. 

It is easier, safer and more cost effective to source local animals for conservation translocations.   Sometimes however it is not possible to do this and zoo animals might be the only option available. An example is the Critically Endangered mountain bongo (Tragelaphus eurycerus isaaci) (IUCN 2017) in Kenya that has become expirtated in many of Kenya’s forests. The only available animals for a population restoration would be from captive populations.

Responsible activities in this regard should as far as possible follow the IUCN Guidelines for Reintroductions and other Conservation Translocations10. This document has definitions of activities in this arena which are important as the new document gives options that were unclear in the previous guidelines.

Sometimes “indigenous range” is unclear with only anecdotal evidence defining this, so it is important to note that this guideline defines and accepts the principle of  “conservation introductions” which is the intentional movement and release of animals outside their indigenous range which might constitute  an  “assisted colonization” which is  the intentional movement and release of an animal outside its  indigenous range to avoid extinction of populations of the focal species. Sometimes appropriate habitat is not available, but this can be a useful tool in perpetuating a species.

Sometimes the correct subspecies is not available or there is scientific confusion about subspecies and this can impede conservation translocations. The guidelines also  define ” Taxon Substitution” where related subspecies can be substituted as an ecological replacement. Black Rhinoceros were extirpated in Chad and it was unclear what subspecies could be used for a conservation translocation. Diceros bicornis minor (Knight 2018) were moved there even though they never occurred there.


Conservation translocations using zoo animals is a relatively new phenomenon and is challenging. Nobody has all the answers. There will be failures and we have learned to accept them. Back to Africa’s journey has been extraordinary with successes and failures.

It is better to pursue projects when asked to do so rather than beg to do a project. 

The custodians of the animals in conservation translocations are the key to success. If they are not committed, the projects will fail. The projects are often developed within national infrastructures so it is important to understand their capacity, mandates and species recovery plans and to fit in with these plans rather than being prescriptive to them. These projects take years to evolve and need to be financed and managed during the processes.

It’s necessary to ensure the custodians have the will and finance available to support the projects and it is important to clarify who pays for what and for how long.

That it will take generations of animals bred under local conditions before a successful rewilding process take place. Unless one has a permanent presence, it is difficult to be in complete control of the management processes. We have learned to accept that it is often imperfect and one can only do one’s best. One reaches a stage at which rewilding occurs and in this period mortalities will occur. One has to be accepting of this, and let it follow it course. One is inclined to want to intervene to prevent mortality but one must not lose sight of ultimate rewilding objective. 


One has to do the best one can using what habitat is available. Most release sites are not truly in situ. Most are fenced areas that could be described as “intrasitu”? Many of our release sites may not be strictly considered wild (Mallon & Stanley Price 2013) and one needs to clarify what level of management will prevail when rewilding. We need to accept that being natural systems, they would be exposed to droughts, that result in mortalities. Should the same apply to project animals? One must be clear about this.

We learned to appreciate the differences in approach to conservation in South Africa.

South Africa has highly sophisticated official conservation bodies and an active wildlife industry. Thousands of animals are moved successfully for conservation and industry purposes. These are generally undocumented   so successes and failures are not recorded. Indeed, undesirable activities occur, but the result of these activities there is much more wildlife in South Africa than ever before. As South Africans we are used to doing thing in this manner but these activities are viewed very sceptically from abroad. 

Zoo’s expect conservation translocations to be done in a very orderly regulated manner and we have learned to respect this. It is a thin line from being over precautionary, that will often  result in nothing being done at all and to being bold and brave and accepting the failures that come with this in dealing with real-world African conservation issues.


It is essential to have the support and blessing of zoo stud book keepers and EEP’s when taking animals from zoos.  We made mistakes accepting animals from zoos without the blessings of these bodies. 

It is important to understand that regional zoo organizations such as EAZA are autonomous from WAZA. Reporting to WAZA does not constitute a report to a regional stud book or EEP.

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