The effects of human exploitation of the natural resources are not limited to deforestation and pollution; it has also affected the diverse animal species of all the earth’s ecosystems. In recent years scientists have explored the possibility of breeding endangered species in captivity and releasing them into the wild to ensure the species survival in the wild. However, these sorts of programs are not easy to fund or carry out. Several implications ranging from operational problems, to inbreeding within the species make it hard for conservationists to carry these programs out.
Captive Breeding of Endangered Animals for Release into the Wild.
Humans are the dominant species on earth. We are considered to be one of the “newer” species, since our species did not evolve until recent times. It is out species’ ability to adapt and modify its surroundings that has made it the real “king of the jungle”. Our dominance on this planet makes us completely responsible for all the things that happen and are not directly caused by natural phenomena.
Humans are to blame for driving our fellow animal species to the brink of extinction. Our lifestyles and need to consume goods like there is nothing else in the world to do but consume and produce wastes are some of the main causes for the destruction of our natural resources.
In recent years the effects of our dwelling in the planet has become more obvious than ever, and the attitude of people is changing. Scientists suggest that a possible solution for the problem could be to have the endangered animals bred in sanctuaries or places where they can be safe and later released into the wild (Meffe and Carroll, 2007).
The idea sounds logical and most people think it is the best way to increase the wild populations of some of the most critically endangered species in the world. However, there are several implications that the general public is not well aware of.
Ability to Breed in Captivity
For example, not all species have the same ability to breed in captivity. Some require very specific conditions that can’t be mimicked in captivity. It is estimated that out of all the recovery plans for endangered species captive breeding is only recommended in 63% of the plans in the USA (Mathews et al., 2005).
Ability to Be “Wild”
Besides these conditions, some animals lose their ability to be “wild” when they find themselves in captivity. They lose certain behaviors that are absolutely necessary for their success in the wild regarding their skills to find food, find a mate, successfully reproduce and care for their young. Scientists have attempted to teach captive-bred animals some of these behaviors and have found it extremely hard to do and in some cases impossible (McPhee, 2004).
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Some animals learn most of these abilities from their mothers or from the interaction with members from their own species. Highly sociable species have another problem besides those listed above; they behave differently to most wild social groups and struggle to be accepted in the group. Species with this problem include African Wild dogs, lions and ungulates in general. Ungulates are animals with hoofs (Gusset, Slotow, & Somers, 2006).
Even when the animals are successfully reintroduced into the wild they are not completely safe. When populations recover and they are considered stable, the government tends to take the species off the Protection Act that punished human aggressors. As soon as they are left without federal protection, hunters move in and the cycle begins all over again. Since these populations are not as “wild” as others of the same species, they may find themselves lacking of abilities to avoid humans.
For example, the grey wolf population in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana has increased slowly and has remained stable for a few years now, so they are to be lifted from the Protection Act in those states. This will allow hunters to kill 950-1,500 animals in order to reduce the population to an estimated 1,250 wolves. This decision was reached in favor of the farmers in the area want to protect their livestock from the wolves, but other groups say that this is not a valid reason because farmer are allowed to kill any wolves that attack, or harass their animals as long as they notify authorities within 72 hours (Legislature of the State of Idaho, 2008).
Other problems include inbreeding of the endangered species. Since the surviving populations of some endangered animals are small, the interbreeding gives room for inbreeding, which increases the chance of genetically inherited disease or genetic predisposition to health problems that may affect the animal’s ability to survive and reproduce. Reproduction in the wild once the animals have been released is key to the survival of the species. If they are unable to reproduce and link their genes with those of wild populations, inbreeding will be more likely to occur and affect their ability to succeed (Pluháček, Sinha, Bartoš & Šípek, 2007).
For example the Florida panther, a subspecies of mountain lion, is highly endangered and despite the efforts of conservationists and zoos, their reproductive success was so low it was estimated that the population would decline to the point of extinction. In order to save this rare subspecies of mountain lion, scientists studied the genetics of other subspecies of mountain lions to find out which one was more closely related to the Florida panther. The findings showed that the panthers in Texas showed a high resemblance, genetically speaking, to the Florida panthers and their populations were linked. This increased the reproduction success rate in a short time, giving the species and new chance of survival (Stokstad, 2005).
When dealing with conservation biology, every single niche of the ecosystem has to be taken in consideration before taking any course of action. When an element of the ecosystem is removed, it affects the other elements of the symbiotic community.
Black-Footed Ferrets. For example, when Prairie Dogs were exterminated by farmers and the government in the Great Plains area, the Black-Footed ferret, the only mammal of its class native to North America, was the one who suffered the most. These small mammals have one of the most specialized diets of all the mammals. They feed entirely on prairie dogs and live in their burrows underground. These particular species was thought to be extinct until the 1980’s when a colony was sighted. Since their re-discovery the have proven to be a real success for conservation biologists. Their numbers are increasing steadily and education has made farmers aware of the importance of protecting these critters and their needs in the wild. They succeeded because not only did the federal government provided funds and resources for the protection of the species. Farmers were also educated and collaborated by protecting their lands and the ferrets living in it (Cubie, 2006).
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Przewalski’s Horse. Another success story is that of the Przewalski’s horse, or Mongolian wild horse. These horse species is the only “true” wild horse species left in the wild. This is the only species of horse that has never been tamed. They suffered the loss of their territory and pasture lands to the hands of the Mongolian farmers and their livestock. These beautiful horses lost their territory and suffered from diseases carried by the farm animals that had contact with them. Several zoos worldwide made a great effort to adopt the remaining individuals in the wild and started breeding programs. By 1960 the species was extinct in the wild and was kept alive in zoos. Their breeding programs started slow but steady and they have been reintroduced into the wild in new territories where they are not to be disturbed (Souris, Kaczensky, Julliard, & Walzer, 2007).
Scimitar Horned Oryx. A similar case happened with the Scimitar Horned Oryx. This antelopes were hunted for their horns, which are the largest of all the antelopes, to the brink of extinction. These magnificent animals live in the northern African deserts and the Middle East. Their population in the Middle East was affected by the constant armed conflicts that have taken place in the region for over 40 years. The dwellings of this antelope were protected and some individuals were captured to breed them in captivity. Their population recovered greatly thanks to the combined efforts of local park rangers who protected the reserves in which they were relocated to and the breeding programs. It is estimated that if scientists had not stepped in, the species would have become extinct by now (Campbell, 2007).
Tigers. Tigers are among the most endangered species on earth and conservation efforts in the wild do not seem to be making any progress. In fact there is no population recovery. The different subspecies are still as endangered as ever and their numbers keep dropping every year. Some tiger sanctuaries in India have not had a single sighting of a tiger in years. These are situations that have pushed conservation biologists to take desperate measures and embark on controversial projects to save the critically endangered species (Ranganathan et al., 2008).
Figure 1: Tigers in the Wild by Species (WWF, 2008)
A very ambitious project a few years ago broke the scientific world when a pair of captive bred Bengal tigers was “trained” to become wild in a game reserve in South Africa. These tiger species is the second largest of all the big cats and it is native to Bangladesh and India. The biologists in charge of the project, Dave Salmoni and John Varty, decided to take them to Africa, because it is the continent with the highest success of large predator population recovery in the world. The tigers were taught to hunt, and avoid dangerous prey that was new to them such as Cape buffalo (Living with Tigers, 2004).
This particular release project has proven to be effective yet very controversial. Tigers are not native to Africa, so their introduction to this new continent was seen as a bad choice since it would only mean more competition to the native predators. South Africa’s native predators include other vulnerable species, mainly big cats, such as cheetahs, African lions, and leopards. These felines compete against each other for hunting grounds and prey. The introduction of the much larger Bengal tiger will only increase competition and favor the introduced species since its characteristics make it a better and stronger predator (Living with Tigers, 2004).
The second major issue regarding the introduction of tigers into Africa is the fact that the pioneer animal behaviorist, who was head of the project, hand raised the tigers and “trained” them to be wild. Therefore, the constant contact with humans during their development is more likely to make them seek human contact in the future. The tigers would not be afraid of humans and the villagers of the region could find themselves in dangerous situations with these mighty predators. Villagers are concerned because in case the Tiger Project releases more tigers, it would mean one more predator to watch out for (Living with Tigers, 2004).
These issues have been addressed by one of the biologists in charge of the tiger project in South Africa, Dave Salmoni. Salmoni (2007) explains, that the “unfortunate reality is that tiger conservation in Asia is in a disturbing state. The problems facing the tiger are ones that cannot be overcome at a whim. We would be acting unethically if we started introducing tigers into an area that has not yet solved its conflicts with the tiger. Therefore, a project like this needs to take seed in another country. Once a working model for tiger conservation is established it is then possible to motivate decision makers to begin to start rectifying the problems the tiger faces. […]In my opinion, if I were given the choice to save the tiger in Africa or see it vanish from the earth, I would choose Africa. Saving the tiger in Africa is not the goal of the project. We hope to use the sanctuary as a model for conservation in Asia.”
Most of the examples I have listed so far may seem to be all failures, but when we take into consideration that all other measures taken have failed, their results are not too bad. Governments around the world tried to protect their wildlife by designating reserves or protected lands.
Poaching. The problem with these is that poachers and black-market traders can easily access the endangered animals and hunt them down. The truth is that there are not many options available when dealing with wild animals, especially those whose populations are so small, any sort of disturbance could be fatal.
One of the biggest problems is that once the populations begin to recover and scientists back down and let nature take its course, human greed returns to claim their victims. Recent studies suggest that the populations of some of the most endangered animals are declining once again due to poaching and habitat destruction. For example, tigers, leopards and other big cats are killed for their furs, bones and claws. Elephants, rhinoceros and many species of antelope are killed for their tusks and horns. All of these products are used in the production of traditional Chinese medicine remedies, or sold as trophies or art pieces (WWF, 2008).
Captive Breeding Solution. It may seem that captive breeding is not the best solution for this problem; nevertheless, it is the only solution that seems to be giving positive results in the long run. Protected areas can only help so much, especially in third world countries which do not have the resources to pay personnel who protect these wildlife reserves and they lack human resources to patrol the large extensions of land to make sure poachers are not entering the protected lands. Zoos help, but the interaction between humans and the wild animals ends up being a problem. Animals raised by hand are less likely to fear humans and therefore become easy prey for hunters or even other animals. Studies show that the loss of “wildness” of captive animals is not only limited to their learnt behaviors, some species show these changes by losing some “instincts” that are invaluable in the wild like their ability to avoid predators or techniques for finding food (Mathews et al., 2005).
Some of these “learnt” behaviors can be eliminated by introducing the captive bred animals to wild populations from an early age so that they can learn from those who have better developed instincts and survival skills. This can be very hard to do because wild populations are not always receptive to outsiders and may see the additions as threats or future competition and get rid of it. But since there is no other plausible way to teach the captive bred individuals, their gradual introduction to wild populations is the best way to ensure their survival and later reproduction in the wild in order to increase the numbers of a population (Gusset, Slotow, & Somers, 2006).
In conclusion, no other conservation practice seems to be providing any positive results and captive breeding and releasing into the wild of endangered species are the only projects that have shown tangible results in the last few decades. It may not be the best way to ensure the survival of the many endangered species, but it is the only method that seems to be producing positive results and increasing wild populations’ numbers. It is important to understand the importance each creature plays in the world and its extinction will only cause changes in ecosystems that will end up affecting human beings as well.
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