June 11, 2019

Focus + Commitment = Increased Conservation Impact

Those who care for wildlife are painfully aware of the current catastrophic rate of species extinctions. None are more concerned than those of us in the zoo and aquarium community. Our institutions have not quietly stood by: around the world, zoos and aquariums are active participants in wildlife conservation – both at our facilities and in the wild. For example, AZA institutions are currently working on the conservation of 195 endangered and 42 threatened species listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

Using the expertise found in zoos and aquariums, we believe that conservation programs have their greatest conservation impact by combining focused efforts with long-term commitment

First, a zoo or aquarium must determine their focus:

  • Do they want to have a strong presence locally or globally? 

  • Do they want to tie their conservation efforts solely to the animals under their care? 

  • And which animals – those impacted by a particular threat? 

  • Those tied to their staff’s strongest areas of expertise? 

  • Those for whom they have the strongest guest experience? 

  • What is the true outcome they want to achieve for these species? 

  • In ten years, what do they want to say they have accomplished?

Second, long-term commitment is critical

  • Although there is an important place for small grants that can provide “seed” funding to help identify promising future projects, longer term commitment is necessary for most conservation programs to succeed.  Small grants can also require considerable time for relatively small gain.  

  • In contrast, longer term commitment (e.g., a minimum of three years at the Saint Louis Zoo) decreases the bureaucratic workload for field conservationists, provides support for critical operational infrastructure, and most importantly, allows them to plan ahead.  Additionally – and of great import for a zoo or aquarium – a long-term commitment means a long-term relationship.  The greater the relationship, the stronger the partnership, and the more opportunity for support to grow into a true partnership – one that provides your organization and your staff with real connections to meaningful conservation work.  This facilitates pride and employee engagement, while also increasing the potential for meaningful conservation conversations with your guests.    

  • This long-term commitment is critical, for as noted by Dr. Carl Jones in his AZA keynote speech in Indianapolis, the data show that “saving” a species requires an average 16 years. Long term commitment has resulted in successes, not only Dr. Jones’ pink pigeons and other species on Mauritius, but also Arabian and scimitar-horned oryx, golden lion and cotton top tamarins, California condors, Ozark hellbenders, and Jamaican iguanas, to name a few. Rather than scatter our resources, we believe that greater focus and commitment allows each institution to produce a greater conservation impact, literally to more effectively hit the conservation “nail on the head.”  And we must increase our impact — the future of many species depends on it. 

In summary, most of our institutions use maps with pins that illustrate the scope of our field presence – the common presumption is the more pins, the larger our efforts. Perhaps we should turn that a bit on its head, use another metric, and use fewer, but larger pins that indicate fewer species, clearer focus, and longer-term support. Those larger pins would then mean more effective conservation impact and a greater chance for successful species protection and recovery.

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Dr. Frederick Lahodny

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