Successful captive programs

The number of species recommended for captive breeding programs for conservation purposes is vastly higher than the number that can be properly supported in existing zoo facilities. Therefore, it is necessary to select species candidates for captive programs. Prioritization of species for captive breeding is complicated, but can be considered in reference to the need of a particular species for conservation outside its wild habitat and the likelihood of a self-sustaining population in the future. Because funds are finite, the needs and success probability must always be balanced against cost.  Prioritization of one species over another can be considered, in part, using the following criteria (Balmford et al. 1996; Allendorf and Luikart 2007):

  1. Economic: Some species are prohibitively costly to keep in captivity. This would include things like blue whales that would require far to many resources to house and feed. Although these animals might benefit from captive programs, the funds necessary may be better spread out over several hundred species rather than localized to a single species.
  2. Biologic: Some species are unlikely to survive in captivity. If some species are particularly ill suited to captivity – such as birds that require long migration of thousands of miles before reproduction – utilizing limited zoo space and resources may be better utilized on a better suited species.
  3. Likelihood of reintroduction: Some species are unlikely to be reintroduced into the wild. Although all species have some value, it is only possible to breed a limited number in captivity, and that the number in need of captive breeding is ever increasing. Therefore, the best use of space, which will result in the largest conservation good, is to aim for space turnover.

Breeding endangered species for eventual release into wild conditions is complex and can be a risky endeavor. Many reintroduction attempts fail, due to issues associated with changes in genetics and behaviors. However, species such as the black-footed ferret and California condor have been successfully bred in captivity, released, survived, and eventually reproduced.


  • Allendorf FW, Luikart G (2007) Conservation and the genetics of populations. Blackwell Publsihing, Malden, MA.
  • Balmford A, Mace GM, Leader-Williams N (1996) Designing the ark: setting priorities for captive breeding. Conservation Biology 10, 719-727.