Does Captive Breeding of Endangered Species Work?

News about new captive-breeding programs crosses my desk almost every day. The goal of each program is similar: take an endangered species out of the wild, put it in a controlled habitat where it can breed in peace and young can grow without predation, then release the young back into the wild.

It seems simple enough in concept, and captive breeding has boosted the populations of several endangered species. But does it always work?

New research, published in the current issue of the journal Science, gives us some warnings about the downside of captive breeding, saying that "even a few generations of domestication can hinder the reproductive success of these animals in the wild" because they lose their ability to avoid predators and change their mating behaviors.

Of course, this study was conducted on steelhead trout, which are bred in commercial fisheries, so extrapolating this to endangered species might be a bit of a stretch.

But meanwhile, other new research on captive breeding, published last month in the journal Molecular Ecology, warns that it can reduce genetic diversity and increase bad genetic traits. If you really look at it though, this is going to happen to any endangered species once its population gets too small, regardless of where they are breeding.

The key, really, is habitat. Creatures need space to breed and their natural habitats to survive. Once a habitat is gone, it can't be recreated. And as David Suzuki and Dr. Faisal Moola discuss in a recent essay, once a species is removed from an ecosystem, it might not even be possible to reintroduce it:

"For example, certain large-seeded fruit trees rely on large primate to disperse their seeds, while the primates rely on the fruit for food. When primates are hunted to near extinction, the forest itself suffers and the fruit trees die off, so there's less food - making the re-introduction of large primates to the area even more difficult."

So... how much habit can we preserve? That remains a question to be answered.

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