Since the Endangered Species Act (ESA) was signed by President Nixon on Dec. 28, 1973, the Act has helped recover more than 30 species, prevented the extinction of 99 percent of the species it protects and currently protects more than 2,140 species. Conservation and learning at accredited zoos and aquariums, in partnership with local and federal agencies, have been key players in wildlife recovery efforts, including animals on the ground such as the black-footed ferret to those in the sea including the green sea turtles and those in the air like the California condors. Forty years later, the numbers are an incredible reminder of the power of a single act.
While our efforts have saved some species, we have lost others in the wild. Today, a few species that are thought to be extinct in the wild can only be seen in aquariums and zoos – a reminder of the frailty and majesty of the living world and our impact on it. At Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, we are home for 14 animals on ESA’s threatened or endangered list, 33 animals on the IUCN Red List and five threatened in Illinois. As the anniversary approaches, four leaders from Shedd reflect on 40 years of the ESA and what the next 40 years will hold.
Species protection with extinction prevention
Accredited zoos and aquariums have always been conservation-minded, but the way we approach conservation has expanded. We now use a multi-dimensional approach focused on individual animals in our care, field research on wild populations and their natural habitats, and public education.
We as a zoo and aquarium community have forged stronger and more collaborative recovery efforts to create a substantial impact as a united front. Many of us care for animals protected under the ESA, and we play a key role in advancing the science of wildlife recovery that is critical to avoid further species extinction.
The most important part of our work is the emphasis to keep species off the threatened or endangered list. A long-sighted view about protecting animals and habitats that are currently thriving is essential to successful conservation. I hope one day we are so successful in our efforts that we no longer need to add new animals to the ESA list each year.
Ken Ramirez, Shedd Aquarium’s executive vice president of animal care training
Evolution of conservation philosophy
When zoos and aquariums first opened, we thought of ourselves as modern Noah’s arks – protecting wildlife from the approaching “flood” of species extinction. Now, we have a broader focus on direct, in-the-field research aimed at habitat preservation and species protection. We are evolving into conservation centers supported by public awareness and education efforts.
We build intimate connections between the public and the animals in our care because people won’t care about saving a species if they don’t appreciate it on a deep level, or even know it exists. This connection cannot be made while staring at a screen. We continually look for new ways to inspire people through on-the-floor interactions, citizen science programs, and even field work expeditions.
As a field biologist, and co-chair of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Iguana Specialist Group, I see first-hand how human encroachment and habitat destruction is devastating wild populations – including the Bahamian Rock Iguana which are the most endangered lizards. Much is being done, but we have more to do.
The Endangered Species Act and conservation bodies like the IUCN are the foundation of a network of experts, policy-makers, and resource managers who seek to address the most urgent conservation priorities. I can say with certainty that without a coordinated effort between conservation partners and governments, none of this would be possible.
Chuck Knapp, Ph.D., Shedd Aquarium’s vice president of conservation and research
I have been involved in wildlife rescue and rehabilitation efforts for decades and while it’s both important and rewarding work, saving a single animal is not conservation.
Rather, conservation is applying what we learn from rescued animals and – even more so – what we learn from having animals in human care. The animals in our care serve as a yard stick, or baseline, for what a healthy animal looks like. Because of our non-invasive research and preventative health care in zoos and aquariums, we understand their biology, needs and best practices for interacting with them. We then take these learnings into the field to influence conservation efforts.
Zoos and aquariums are positioned to support field conservation efforts through on-the-ground staff and resources. We collaborate with other organizations and work with leaders around the world—scientists, educators, government officials, businesspeople, citizens—to forge solutions to tomorrow’s conservation challenges. We can also leverage emerging technologies such as drones to study animals in remote locations, or genetic testing to learn about population history and diversity.
We have barely dipped below the surface and with new technology available to support conservation research we have new and exciting ways to study and preserve species.
Tim Binder, Shedd Aquarium’s vice president of collection planning
The future of the ESA: Power of Personal Action
I’ve been at Shedd Aquarium for almost as long as the ESA is old. I’ve had the opportunity to see national efforts unfold and evolve.
One of the most impactful changes is the partnership between zoos and aquariums and government agencies leading the ESA including NOAA Fisheries and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These partnerships allow us to share data and techniques learned from the animals in our care to improve rescue and rehabilitation in the wild. These valuable collaborations apply federal efforts on the local level. For example, I’m a board member for the Illinois Endangered Species Protection Board. This Board serves in an advisory capacity to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Our function is to advise on methods of assistance, protection, conservation and management of endangered species and their habitats. Looking back, it’s incredible to see the change in the public’s interest in environmental conservation – from a movement embracing recycling and green living to today’s young generation with increased interest in protecting animals and their environment. At Shedd, I’ve seen how touching the smooth skin of a stingray at an aquarium can lead a young guest to think about what type of sustainable seafood dish to order at dinner. It’s those experiences that have demonstrated the critical role that zoos and aquariums play in conservation.
You don’t have to be a scientist to take action to help endangered species. The everyday choices we make can protect not only endangered species, but all species. At Shedd, our responsibility is to bring light to the imminent dangers to the amazing creatures in our care through incredible stories of recovery told through science, determined agencies, organizations and, most of all, inspired individuals. So I ask you to reflect, what are you doing to help protect these animals?
Jim Robinett, Shedd Aquarium’s senior vice president of external and regulatory affairs