Captive breeding: controversial conservation?

One of the most important aspects of amphibian conservation is, without question, captive breeding. The efforts of the Panama Amphibian Rescue and Conservation project (PARC) and the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Centre (EVACC) are probably the sole reason that Panamanian Golden Frogs (Atelopus zeteki) are still alive today, even though they are no longer found in the wild. However, there is some controversy associated with the breeding of endangered frogs in captivity, especially in regards to the treatment of excess individuals. For instance, PARC and EVACC do not sell their extra frogs, but some golden frogs have been shipped to zoos in the United States, where they now reproduce in captivity. While I was in Panama, a disturbing myth came up that EVACC had been breeding and selling golden frogs to wealthy Americans for a profit. This is not true at all, but rumors like it are one reason why community outreach during Golden Frog Week is so important.

Although PARC and EVACC do not sell their excess frogs because they are non-profit, there are some organizations that specialize in captive breeding rare and endangered species that do. In my personal opinion, selling the juveniles and extra breeders is the best strategy because it will encourage other breeders to take up the challenge and could result in a huge propagation of the species in captivity. One example of a species that has managed to gain what you could call “buffer populations” in captivity is the New Caledonian crested gecko (Correlophus ciliatus), a species that was thought extinct until it was rediscovered in 1994 but is now one of the most popular reptiles in the pet trade. One of the problems that zoos and other captive breeding organizations that don’t sell to the general public have is that they don’t have space for all of the frogs that are produced. This means that some frogs may die due to neglect, overcrowding or may simply be euthanized to provide more space. By selling some of the extra individuals, organizations can gain some financial benefits to help with further production of the species, contribute to captive breeding by other experts, and will also be able to free up space in their facility.

Those were the pros but on the cons side, probably the greatest objection to putting these rare species in the hands of hobbyists is that not every person who buys them is going to be able to take care of them properly or breed them. Some people may even mistakenly release diseased individuals into the wild, thereby further decimating frog populations. There is also a general opinion among some people that animals are better left in the wild, even if they are rare or endangered. One reason for this is that there have been a few cases where some individuals of a declining species were taken into captivity, but then could not be induced to breed. An example of this difficulty is the bolitoglossid salamanders, which have mostly only been bred at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio, although they are trying to breed some at EVACC as well. In general, while it is better to conserve amphibians in the wild, there are some cases where it is necessary to bring them into captivity (such as when they are in imminent danger of becoming infected by chytridiomycosis), and in those cases where breeding takes place on a large-scale, I think it is acceptable to sell the excess.

For those individuals who are interested in purchasing some sustainable captive-bred frogs, Understory Enterprises is working in collaboration with some organizations that breed rare frogs in captivity and will sell the excess. One of these is Wikiri, located in Ecuador, which breeds a rare marsupial tree frog (Gastrotheca riobambae) and a horned frog (Ceratophrys stolzmanni). They also breed feeder insects for sale, as well, which is a smart move since breeding insects is a must for any larger breeding facility. Another captive-breeding organization under Understory that is of interest to me is Mitsinjo’s Frog Conservation Project in Madagascar. Although Madagascar does not yet have the amphibian chytrid fungus, there are concerns that it may reach there sometime within the next few years and decimate many of the endemic frogs. Habitat loss is already contributing to the declines of much of the fauna of Madagascar as well, and for these reasons, they breed Mantellas and some other critically endangered frogs that are in need of urgent conservation action. I hope that the next time that hobbyists look to buy a rare amphibian, they will look to these organizations and other sustainable captive breeding efforts for their animals rather than purchasing wild-collected ones.

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