Zoos rethink role as matchmaker for endangered species

Zoos rethink role as matchmaker for endangered species

WASHINGTON - Like an online dating site for endangered species, many zoos use computerized matchmaking to mate animals in captivity in hopes of saving some of the world's most vulnerable creatures.

The tools of the trade range from frozen panda sperm, to genetic databases to ultrasounds for hefty rhinoceroses.

But like dating everywhere, it gets expensive, complicated and doesn't always work.

After more than three decades of efforts, some experts are taking a fresh look at modern-day breeding tactics. Zoos, they say, cannot keep pace with the high costs of shipping animals from one facility to another, as the loss of wild habitat pushes more and more creatures to the brink of extinction.

A movement to improve captive breeding began in the late 1970s when scientists realised that some zoo-held baby giraffes, gazelles and deer were more likely to die if inbred.

"That really caused a sea change in zoos because they realised they had to be better at managing captive populations," recalled David Wildt, head of the Center for Species Survival at the Smithsonian National Zoo.

Today, survival plans exist for more than 500 species, including cheetahs, Asian elephants and black-footed ferrets.

The genetic data of captive specimens is fed into computers so scientists can determine the most diverse matches for each individual.

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