The European Union helped pass a strict ban on selling African baby elephants to zoos, BBC News reported last week. Zimbabwe and the United States were among the nations that voted against the trade restrictions, which passed August 27. The vote supersedes zoos’ usual conservation efforts.
The near-total ban on exporting baby elephants from the wild and selling them to zoos worldwide was approved at the Geneva meeting of the organization called Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), according to the BBC. Part of the motivation for the ban was to curb the separation of baby elephants from their parents, which biologists say is traumatizing for animal families. Limited trading will still be allowed by nations such as Zimbabwe and Botswana, which have far higher elephant populations than other countries. Despite the ban’s focus on the roles that zoos play in the separation and trading of elephants, zoos and zoologists have taken active roles in wildlife conservation in other instances.
Conservation Example of Monk Seal
Besides running zoos, what do zoologists and accredited zoos do for our knowledge of wildlife? The newly extinct Caribbean monk seal gives us one example. It finds itself at the center of a 500-year-old mystery when compared to its cousins, the Hawaiian monk seal and the Mediterranean monk seal. Simply put, all three species don’t quite line up the way they should.
“All three species were [originally] placed in the same genus, Monachus,” said Dr. Donald E. Moore, III, director of the Oregon Zoo and senior science advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. “Although the last, living Caribbean monk seal was spotted in 1952, Smithsonian’s scientists were able to extract DNA samples from century-old sealskins in the museum collections.”
Then, by collaborating with scientists in New York and Germany, the Smithsonian scientists compared the Caribbean monk seal DNA with the DNA of their Mediterranean and Hawaiian counterparts.
“It turns out the Hawaiian and Caribbean species are much more similar to each other on a genetic level than they are to the Mediterranean species,” Dr. Moore said. “Thus, zoologists have now placed them on their own branch of the tree of life in a separate genus, Neomonachus, or the new monk seals. Because of the amount of variation in their genes, zoologists were also able to estimate that the Hawaiian and Caribbean species were separated into two distinct populations about three to four million years ago—right around the time geologists estimate that the Isthmus of Panama closed the connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.”
Zoos and Genetic Diversity
Dr. Moore also explained how zoos aim to help species maintain their genetic diversity, a topic which came into discussion during last week’s CITES decision on baby African elephants.
“In the case of the cheetah, Smithsonian reproductive biologists manage a Species Survival Plan for North America’s Association of Zoos and Aquariums,” he said. “We keep records of the age and sex distribution of the population, the transfers of cheetahs between facilities, and the breeding of those cheetahs. We evaluate their genetic health and model breeding outcomes with computers, in the hope of using this modern ‘computer dating’ to enhance the genetic makeup of cheetahs both in captivity and in the wild.”
Additionally, Dr. Moore said his team’s research helps cheetah health care in zoos around the world and sanctuaries in Africa, while some of his colleagues work with African farmers to coexist with the cheetahs rather than kill them off.
The relationships between zoologists, farmers, traders, poachers, zoos, governments, and the wilds are incredibly complex. The ban on trading baby elephants is, like the creatures themselves, just a part of the overall ecosystem of living things.
Dr. Donald E. Moore III contributed to this article. Dr. Moore is the director of the Oregon Zoo and senior science advisor at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute. He earned a bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Management and Zoology and a doctoral degree in Conservation Biology from the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.