James Brereton, Chair of BIAZA's Native Species Working Group, tells us about the important work going on to conserve species living in and around zoo and aquarium sites.
2021 has been challenging for many of us. Among other changes, working from home has become much more commonplace. With advice to avoid public places, the importance of wildlife just outside our windows has become ever clearer. Many have started to take up activities like bird watching or making space for wildlife in the garden. Common species like the local robin or wood pigeon have become welcome visitors.
However, not all UK wildlife is common: in fact, many native species are in fact threatened with extinction. Take, for example, the fen raft spider. This spider, known as Dolomedes plantarius to scientists, is one of the largest arachnids in the UK, and survives only in swampy environments. The species almost became extinct in England as a result of degradation of its natural wetland habitat. Fortunately, thanks to the work of several conservation organisations such as Natural England, combined with the work of BIAZA zoos (which reared up tiny spiderlings for release) the species is doing much better.
While zoos are often considered to be involved in the conservation of species from far-flung, exotic climates, they also play a key role in native species conservation. This could be through captive breeding and reintroduction, as was the case with the fen raft spider and the red billed chough (Pyrrhocorax pyrrhocorax). But zoological collections have another role to play: they offer a home to wildlife too.
Within zoo grounds there are many varied habitats, with some collections actively managing nature reserves on their sites. Many collections actively encourage native species onto their grounds, as shown by BIAZA’s Grab that Gap campaign, in which small pockets of space were planted with native flowers to feed pollinators. Since its inception, 48 zoos have engaged with the initiative.
It’s also important to measure which species are making use of zoological collections. To gain a better understanding as to what is present, BIAZA collections have been recording the species that staff find on site. To date, a total of 3946 different species have been recorded on BIAZA sites! This includes 9 Critically Endangered species, and 87 Endangered species (according to the UK Red Lists). A further 363 species under threat of extinction in the UK have been found on BIAZA sites.
BIAZA collections, therefore, are a valuable home for many native species. With developments in technology, it has become easier than ever to identify native species: apps like iNaturalist and Seek can help anyone to tell the difference between a slow worm and a smooth snake. For our teams, this technology has allowed the zoo community to better cater for their wildlife on site. For those of us at home, this can add a fresh new look at the plethora of bees and snails just outside the window.
The conservation of native species has never been so exciting, so it is more important than ever that zoos and aquariums shout loudly about the conservation happening on their doorstep, and shout loudly about the work visitors can do looking after the wildlife in their own patch. I think we have an important role to play conserving the birds and beetles as well as the large charismatic animals visitors want to see. The work of the Native Species Working Group is to figure out the best ways to do that!
By James Brereton, Chair of BIAZA's Native Species Working Group.
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