AZA Taxon Advisory Group Profile


By: Jill Mellen and David Wildt

There are 37 species of cats worldwide. Virtually all are threatened or endangered in at least some portion of their original range. Historically, the population decline was due to hunting, specifically for the fur and pet trades. The primary threat now, however, is habitat loss due to conversion to agriculture and urban areas. In some Asian countries, the use of bones for traditional medicine has also severely impacted wild populations of felids. In the 1970s and 1980s, a major goal of captive propagation in zoos was for potential reintroduction. However, with the reality of habitat loss, expense of reintroductions, and the difficulty in preparing a captive-raised carnivore for release, the primary role of captive propagation in zoos has now shifted to a focus on education and research. Captive animals in zoos can and do serve as ambassadors for the species, serving to educate the public about the plight of felids in the wild. Additionally, research on behavior, reproductive biology, and population biology can be applied to management of species in the wild.

To facilitate captive propagation, zoos have established Species Survival Plans (SSP©s), which focus upon genetic and demographic analyses of captive populations and include individual-by-individual breeding recommendations. These programs strive to maintain maximum genetic diversity within a captive population. Demographic and genetic analyses suggest that to retain 90% of the genetic diversity in a population, that population must be comprised of about 200 breeding individuals. However, the limiting factor in virtually all captive breeding programs is the amount of enclosure space available among zoos for a given species. For example, for the 8 species of large felids, optimally, 1,600 zoo "spaces" should be allocated to larger cats. If sub-species are taken into consideration, even more "spaces" are required. Using these same criteria, the 29 species of smaller cats would require 5,800 "spaces." Given these obvious space limitations, zoos have been faced with prioritizing their spaces. Towards this end, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) has established Taxon Advisory Groups (TAGs) to address these issues as well as issues common to the captive propagation within a taxonomic group (e.g., nutrition, disease, contraception, and environmental enrichment).

The Felid TAG was founded in 1991 under the umbrella of the AZA. The TAG is one of more than 40 such advisory groups that works to enhance the management and conservation of wildlife species in zoos and in nature. The TAG is comprised of more than 30 felid experts, including cat managers (zoo directors, curators and keepers) and research scientists representing the behavioral, reproductive, genetic, nutrition and veterinary sciences. In addition to ensuring that all available zoo space is managed properly for the cats deserving highest priority attention, the Felid TAG also promotes and conducts studies to (1) sort out taxonomy and subspecies issues; (2) develop and support research such as assisted breeding (artificial insemination); (3) develop safe contraceptive approaches; and, (4) support educational and training programs, especially in range countries. The TAG also promotes the development of new SSPs, Population Management Plans (PMP) and studbooks. The Felid TAG convenes three-day working group meetings annually, an event that includes updates of conservation and research projects conducted during the past year.

One key to the Felid TAG's success has been the AZA's association with the Ralston Purina Company, which six years ago developed a Big Cat Survival Fund. Portions of sales from cat food were provided to the AZA's Conservation Endowment Fund, and the Felid TAG assisted in identifying those projects most worthy of support. To date, more than $500,000 has been awarded through this process. Examples of projects include:

To assist zoos in identifying which felid species should be managed for captive propagation, the Felid TAG also annually develops a Regional Collection Plan. Collection Plans are based upon a conservation rank assigned to each species based upon their level of endangerment in the wild, the relative genetic and demographic health of the captive population, and the potential for acquiring additional zoo-born individuals from other areas in the world. Because large cats are so charismatic, analysis of available space indicates that the allocated 1,600 spaces for big cats are nearly filled, although the species are not equally represented. For example, last year's analysis revealed 314 spaces filled by tigers; however, many of these animals are generic and of unknown origin and thus not part of the SSP program. In contrast, only 77 North American spaces were occupied by jaguars. With the exception of the puma, each species of large cat is intensively managed by an SSP or PMP. (Pumas are not managed as a PMP or an SSP because, with the exception of the Florida panther, the wild population appears healthy. Further, zoos can fulfill their needs for "educational" pumas by adopting unreleasable orphaned cubs.) Both PMP and SSP programs involve genetic and demographic analyses of their captive populations with individual-by-individual breeding recommendations updated annually. An SSP differs from a PMP in that the former promotes in situ conservation as well. Table 2 indicates the priority ranking for captive propagation of large cat species.

In contrast to the large cats, there are no SSPs in place for small cats, and only recently have PMPs been established for some of these species. If each of the dozen species of small cats routinely housed in zoos was allocated the theoretical 200 spaces for captive propagation, 2,400 spaces would be required. In reality, only 540 spaces were filled by small cat species in 1996. Thus, the Felid TAG is working intensively to determine which small cat species should be managed within this limited number of captive spaces. Table 3 identifies those species recommended by the Felid TAG for exhibition and, in some cases, propagation in North American institutions. As with the puma, the Felid TAG discourages North American zoos from breeding lynx and bobcat.

All the Felid TAG members are volunteers with full-time responsibilities elsewhere. Nonetheless, this group works hard and as a team, and now has a number of substantial products to show for its years of diligent effort. There is a great sense of reward to working in partnership with friends and associates who have common interests and goals in the conservation of this highly endangered and charismatic taxon.

Jill Mellen and David Wildt are Co-Chairpersons of the Felid Taxon Advisory Group. Jill Mellen is the Research Biologist at Disney's Wild Animal Kingdom; P.O. Box 10,000, Lake Buena Vista, FL 32820. David Wildt heads the Department of Reproductive Physiology and is a Research Director at New Opportunities in Animal Health at the National Zoo's Conservation & Research Center; Smithsonian Institution, 1500 Remount Road, Front Royal, VA 22630.

Archives | Bulletin Board | Comments | Contribute to the ESU | ESU Staff | Home | March/April 1997 Contents | Links | Next Issue | Subscriptions