Today I spent the afternoon interviewing chimpanzee keepers at the Los Angeles Zoo about the newest generation of chimps born at the Mahale Mountains exhibit there. A lot of what we talked about centered around the fact that these chimps are part a Species Survival Plan, or SSP, that regulates the captive breeding of animals at accredited American zoos and aquariums.
I think it's safe to say that most people don't consider how important the individual animals they're seeing at zoos can be to their species as a whole. Once upon a time zoos were little more than freak shows, exhibiting the strange and exotic to a fascinated public. That is long past, however, and good zoos are now very concerned about the conservation of their charges, both in the wild and in captivity. That's why it's so important to have a plan for the breeding of animals, especially among endangered populations
That's where SSPs come in. They make sure that certain individuals don't become over-represented in the gene pool. It wouldn't do, for instance, to have every Komodo dragon in America be the offspring of just one pair. This is imperative since most animals aren't (nor should they be) taken from the wild any more. These days, it's much more likely that animals will have lived in captivity for generations, like the 4th generation LAZ chimpanzees I visited today. Obviously someone had better keep track of who's breeding with whom.
So what is an SSP? Basically, it's a cooperative plan for managing individuals to make certain that the species as a whole can thrive. There are currently more than 500 species with plans, each managed by a Taxon Advisory Group. Each has its own studbook, breeding schedule, and transfer plan. In addition, the SSPs identify goals for managing the species, keeping them genetically diverse, and ensuring their continued survival in captivity and the wild. Problems and challenges are identified too. For chimps these range from the bushmeat crisis and deforestation in their native habitat to the keeping of apes as pets and as performers in captivity. Sometimes SSPs even coordinate veterinary care and disease abatement in wild populations.
So keep an eye out for symbols like the one at the top of this post if you happen to visit a zoo or aquarium. You'll know that you're in the company of some very important individuals.