Conservation is one of the justification given by private breeders for keeping species in aviculture. Keeping captive populations that in case needed could be used to introduce them back into the wild. But are the birds that we keep in aviculture suitable for conservation and is this argument valid?
The IUCN species survival commission has drafted the “Guidelines for the use of Ex Situ Management for Species Conservation” which outlines some of the principles that need to be taken into account of when and how to use ex situ management for saving species. Ex situ means taking species out of their natural conditions and are managed by humans in artificial conditions (IUCN, 2014) and is therefore applicable to all species in our care.
These guidelines give four reasons when to use ex situ management as a conservation tool:
- Address the causes of primary threats
These are research, education or training activities to support conservation targeted at the main threats of the species. Very few research is being done on birds kept by private keepers, although Ornitho-Genetics is one of the few organisations that work with private breeders on research projects, none of those are directly aimed at removing the primary threats towards the species we research. Also on education and training only very few private breeders are involved in such a conservation activities.
- Offset the effects of threats
These are activities aimed at diminishing the negative effects of small population dynamics by example countering an unbalanced sex-ratio in a wild population or head-starting as being done with Kiwis in New Zealand, where Kiwi eggs are taken into captivity and the young are only released after they are of such a size that predation of rats and stoats is not a threat to them anymore. Zoos are often involved in such activities but very few to no private breeders are, especially when keeping native species where distance, costs and animal health risks by moving species over large distances are too big of an obstacle.
- Buy time
Having a genetically diverse and sustainable insurance population of a species in captivity can prevent a species of going extinct completely, especially if the threats to it survival cannot be addressed on time to prevent the last populations of disappearing. A good example of this are different species from Montserrat that were taken into captivity because of volcanic eruption destroying most of the habitat of these species. After the volcanic eruption work on habitat restoration got under way ensuring that these captive population could be released again.
This is also linked with the last reason for ex situ management
- Restoring wild populations
When the treats to a species of population has been addressed captive birds could be used for reintroducing or reinforcing wild populations. As currently being done by blue-throated macaws where captive bred birds are reintroduced into the wild to strengthen the wild population in Bolivia.
These last 2 points private breeders could contribute to, even though there are some challenges to overcome. If we look at populations of birds in the hands of private breeders we do not know with how many birds we started. We do not know how many founders there were when the birds were taken into captivity. Also we do not know which birds bred and which birds did not. So we lack the knowledge of the genetic diversity we started with. As maintaining an as high as possible genetic diversity is one of the objectives of captive breeding programmes this is a problem. Another problem is that even though individual captive breeders keep good track records of the birds in their collection, we lack the overview of the whole population. Zoos by example use a programme call ZIMS, a zoological information management system, which keeps track of the collections of the zoos that are part of this system and keeps track of the individuals as well after they move to another zoo. In breeding programmes these data is even being kept with more detail keeping track of which animals are related and what would be ideal pairings to maintain genetic diversity.
This lack of overview of the whole population is a problem that would need to be overcome to make aviculture relevant for conservation. Individual zoos that participate in the programme also agree upon following the recommendations of the studbook keeper to ensure that the right animals can be matched. Also animals cannot leave the programme. You can imagine that if a zoo maintaining a breeding pair that is genetically distinct from the rest of the population decides to sell the offspring this jeopardises the programme.
These rules that are set to ensure breeding programmes can be successful can be challenging in private aviculture as our birds are privately owned and an outsider telling us what to do with our offspring is difficult to accept.
Another challenge is show-birds, when as a breeder you aim to do well in shows you try to breed as close to a standard as possible. This also means you work with the birds that resemble this standard as close as possible. Often these birds are related and when pairing your best birds together inbreeding can be a tool to use to obtain this goal. This does conflict though with breeding for conservation. When breeding for conservation you select your pairings on maintaining a high genetic diversity. When selecting pairings for shows you select on the phenotype of your birds. And you select to a specific phenotype. This leads to a genetic homogeneous population. You often hear show-breeders saying that when introducing new birds into their collection they have to take one step back in quality before moving forward again. This is specific to show-bird selecting and not a bad thing at all, but it does conflict with breeding for conservation.
Another topic is animal health. For parrots different diseases like Herpes, Polyoma, Parrot Beak and Feather Disease are present in captive populations. And even though testing and quarantine measures are becoming more and more routine there are still breeders who do not do either. This is not only a risk for your captive collection but also makes our captive birds a bigger risk for possible reintroduction or conservation processes. Of course private breeders do not have the resources of zoos in monitoring and testing their birds, but it is a topic that needs to be addressed if we want our birds to become relevant for conservation.
This shows that currently our birds are no suitable for ex situ conservation processes and that if we would like to contribute to conservation we would need to ensure that we as private breeders work on keeping data of our populations and on our health practices. Of course this will take time and money, but are crucial if we want to keep our birds and contribute to their survival in the wild. Breeding programmes and tracking pedigrees is a normal thing for horse- and dog-breeds so why would it not be possible for birds?
IUCN species survival commission, 2014, Guidelines for the use of Ex Situ Management for Species Conservation, https://portals.iucn.org/library/sites/library/files/documents/2014-064.pdf