From the Classroom

How conservation specialists navigated a global pandemic

How three wildlife conservation programs adapted due to COVID-19 restrictions.

Beginning in March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic caused travel restrictions that impacted the transportation of endangered species. Ian Recchio, curator of reptiles and amphibians at the Los Angeles Zoo, worked endlessly with other herpetology curators to transport essential reptiles and amphibians needed for captive breeding programs.

“With Delta Airlines being the only carrier that will take venomous species, and so many Delta flights being canceled… zoo reptile curators would coordinate to send their shipments to larger airports,” Recchio said. Given the restrictions regarding the transportation of venomous snakes such as the Ethiopian Mountain Viper, reptile curators had to coordinate sending their animal shipments to airports such as Fort Worth and Atlanta all on the same day. This allowed zoos from smaller cities such as Zoo Knoxville and the Chattanooga Zoo to only have to make one trip to Memphis, which is farther away.

This method allowed these zoos to pick up multiple shipments from other zoos around the country.

“We, even now, are still trying to consolidate shipments, this takes a lot of coordination, but us herpetology curators in AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) are a tight-knit community and we communicate well as a group,” Recchio said.

In order to maintain biodiversity, conservation specialists utilize techniques such as captive breeding to manage genetic diversity.

Zoo Species Survival Plans (SSP) focus on captive breeding, and are managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. These plans are carried out by institutions, including zoos accredited by the association. The goal of these programs is to maximize genetic diversity through the development of Breeding and Transfer Plans. These plans “summarize the current demographic and genetic status of the population, describe the Animal Program’s management designation, and recommend breeding pairs and transfers,” according to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. They are designed to maintain a genetically diverse and demographically stable population for the long-term future.

In order for Species Survival Plans to function, animals must be transferred from zoo to zoo based on genetic pairing recommendations from the survival plan’s management committees and coordinators, Recchio said. Zoo closures and travel restrictions posed threats to Species Survival Plans in some places, causing departments like Recchio’s to get creative.

“If they say, ‘We need you to move your female Komodo to the Memphis Zoo to breed with a male there,’ it would be more difficult, mainly because of the airline issues,” Recchio said.

Captive breeding programs are imperative for sustaining animals for zoo exhibits, as wild animals are not taken to zoos in most cases without a legitimate threat to the species. Species bred as part of Species Survival Plans are essential for wildlife conservation efforts. Accredited zoos, including the L.A. Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, and organizations such as the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), play essential roles in wildlife conservation. These zoos collaborate with other non-governmental organizations that work to save critically endangered reptile and amphibian species and preserve biodiversity, and the Turtle Survival Alliance operates and supports projects focused on the survival of endangered tortoises and freshwater turtles globally.

In order to carry out conservation projects, travel and transport are important. With restrictions imposed as a response to COVID-19 from the Center for Disease Control, conservation programs have been impacted in a number of ways. This includes restrictions on travel, international projects being forced to a halt and paused bloodline exchanges with zoos. However, creativity and preparation have kept reptile and amphibian departments and organizations operating, especially with high-value programs like Species Survival Plans. Zoos and organizations are now working on catching up and addressing critical projects.

Reptile and Amphibian Department, L.A. Zoo

Animal Transportation

“We found really creative ways to keep the machine moving,” Recchio said.

Tag-teaming with other zoos to move animals, driving animals to places when possible and finding connecting flights helped the animals jet-set when necessary.

Logistical issues complicated the transportation of animals further. Despite obstacles from airlines, including flight restrictions and cutting back flights due to decreasing funds, zoos didn’t give up.

“You don’t want something on a connecting flight where it’s going to be minus 20 degrees and potentially be moving from plane to plane… If there’s a problem something could freeze to death or on the flip side in the summer when it’s blazing hot,” Recchio said.

For these reasons, the L.A. Zoo herpetology team had to be strategic when it came to moving animals.

“We prioritized what was critical to move and what wasn’t,” Recchio said.

Captive Breeding and Zoo Operations

While captive breeding was slowed for some L.A. Zoo species due to the pandemic, the yellow-legged frog breeding programs were not heavily impacted aside from keeper protocols, which involved wearing masks and having a limited number of keepers going to release sites, Recchio said.

In September of 2020, these release locations for the yellow-legged frogs and tadpoles were impacted by the fires. “If I produce 3,000 tadpoles, I don’t have places for 3,000 frogs, so they have to be put back in the wild pretty quickly,” Recchio said, adding that “the fire was probably more impactful than COVID when it came to that particular program here.”

International Conservation Projects and Funding

Regardless, proximity proved to be a plus. “The good news for the yellow-legged frog program is that those field sites are right in our backyard [in] San Gabriel… So the good news is we could still go into the field and do a habitat assessment with USGS (United States Geological Survey) or release frogs and be back the same day,” he said.

During a time when international travel restrictions are causing setbacks, having locals that live in countries where conservation programs are carried out is essential.

“There’s a long history of Europeans and Americans going into countries and naming animals after some European scientists,” Recchio said. He added that has been a shift away from excluding locals from the processes of wildlife conservation. “Without local buy-in and local people’s involvement, your conservation programs abroad are just going to fail,” he said. “Everybody’s got to work together.”

The zoo’s non-local projects had to be adjusted. Recchio said there were plans for him to support their Indian gharial project and for a large trade with the Moscow Zoo that all had to be cancelled.

There is still catching up to do before the zoo’s return to business as usual.

Recchio aims to address both short-term and long-term projects.

“In the short term, I just want to kind of keep the exhibits open, keep the high priority breeding programs going,” Recchio said. These include the yellow-legged frog, komodo dragon, Armenian Vipers, Catalina Island Rattlesnakes and Ethiopian Mountain Vipers.

As normalcy inches closer, biologists are able to get back in the field. “They’re assessing some of that burn habitat to find out what the release sites look like for this year. So that’s going to be interesting as things progress,” he said.

Reptile and Amphibian Department, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

Funding and Breeding Programs

While the L.A. Zoo battled COVID-19 closures for an extended period of time, travel restrictions and wildfires, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium had a slightly different experience dealing with the pandemic.

Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo shut down from March 16 to June, 2020.

When it came to the department of reptiles and amphibians, Jessi Krebs, the zoo’s curator of reptiles and amphibians, said there was a safety net built in through funds set aside for a time of need. It is because of these funds that the zoo’s department of reptiles and amphibians did not have to shut down in the same way other departments did.

When breeding animals like the Puerto Rican crested toad, Krebs said each institution is responsible for paying for the care of the tadpoles while they are at the zoo, and then paying for shipment to get them to the island where they will be released. From there, partner organizations such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Department of Natural Resources, universities and NGOs take over for the monitoring of the animals and their release.

When there was a need to reduce costs, this was one of the first programs that was pulled from a lot of zoos; luckily, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo was able to continue participating in this form of conservation. “Our institution actually built in a safety net for things like that so we did not need to hit the pause button on any of our conservation amphibian work,” Krebs said.

Keeping programs running amid the pandemic didn’t come without sacrifice.

“We did reduce a lot of things; we made 60% budget cuts across the board. But because of the safety net built in, it did not affect our conservation work, or animal movements for reptiles and amphibians,” Krebs said.

Fortunately, the zoo has gained revenue back since reopening its doors.

Krebs said that 2021 is off to a strong start with an influx of zoo visitors. “That restricted budget that we started with up until April, has now been doubled. So we’re in a better place, and certainly by the next quarter we might go back to our full pre-pandemic numbers as far as budget,” he said.

Because the zoo was not forced to make extreme cuts, the department of reptiles and amphibians was able to breed their Boreal Toads from Utah for the first time. The toadlets were released in May.

Activities that were temporarily put on hold consisted of sending animals places that were not for survival breeding plans.

International Conservation Projects

There were, however, delays with the department’s project with the Honduran amphibian Conservation and Research Rescue Center.

Funds are typically channeled to this organization, and zoo staff is sent to the Honduras breeding facility. This project helps fight extinction for critically endangered species of frogs. “We’re building a facility so that we can take animals from the wild that are sick, fix them, head start them, get them healthy again, and then put them back [in the wild]. That whole program got put on pause for the year,” Krebs said.

This project was paused, causing setbacks.

“In our timeline, we had the resources in place to be at a point where this year we were going to put the final touches on all the infrastructure... you know how we get water, how we feed the animals, all the tanks, everything you can think of to make this center operational to the point that we could bring animals in,” Krebs said, adding that, “We were never able to get people down there to finish that up.”

This project will be continued once American tourists and workers are allowed back in Honduras, Krebs says, noting that it could be another year before this could happen. The uncertainty surrounding travel makes it unclear what the extent of the impact from delays will be.

“That set that whole project back at least a year, if not two. And this could have a detrimental effect based on the fact that we see animals disappearing… because of habitat destruction, pollution and emerging amphibian disease,” Krebs said.

Turtle Survival Alliance

Outreach and Operations

Cris Hagen, the South Carolina based director of the Turtle Survival Center at the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), manages all of the captive animals in its collection, which includes the turtles at the Turtle Survival Center as well as animals that are out on loan nationally, at zoos, universities and conservation centers.

“We haven’t been able to go out and do our normal outreach programs that we would normally do, and travel to conferences and projects around the planet. So that’s been the big difference… other than that day to day operations of the center are pretty much exactly the same just minus the occasional visitors that we have,” said Hagen, whose facility consists of around 600 turtles.

The Turtle Survival Alliance’s survival center is their only captive center within the United States. The organization has participated in the finding and construction of captive centers around the globe. Operations at the survival center are managed by a small staff of around five people and sometimes summer interns. The daily work for the center consists of husbandry, maintenance, horticulture and construction, Hagen said.

International Projects and Breeding Programs

The Turtle Survival Alliance’s programs span globally, all with different goals.

International programs are part of the Turtle Survival Alliance field program, and they all meet different needs. “Madagascar is almost purely confiscation and other countries, like Myanmar or India, are head starting programs, there are captive breeding centers… it varies from country to country,” Hagen said.

International projects have been severely impacted in one way or another, Hagen said.

“Because there’s no travel going on that makes things very difficult for a lot of the stuff that we do, but in general… everything is still working as usual,” Hagen said.

For instance, there were plans in 2020 to send different waves of people to Madagascar to work on a project, but that has been put on hold until staff is able to travel there again.

The UK-based wildlife charity People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) provided a press release discussing the impact of conservation projects being on hold and decreased ecotourism. According to PTES, there have been more cases of illegal poaching, and the inability to travel has caused setbacks in conservation efforts. While these are effects of the pandemic closures, that is not to say that there aren’t advantages for wildlife conservation amid the pandemic.

Hagen said he has noticed less animal confiscations. “There’s not as much illegal collection… going on, there’s still certainly some, but we haven’t seen huge numbers of turtles being confiscated, we’re not seeing huge numbers of turtles being legally or illegally imported,” he said

Hagen said because less people are travelling there’s a lot fewer flights, which may be benefiting efforts to save the turtles in that regard.

Instances in which efforts are hindered include bloodline exchanges with places such as Europe. “[Bloodline exchanges] might be slowed down or not even really happening, because we can’t get the permits done to exchange animals for genetic purposes with different zoos and conservation groups,” Hagen says.

Aside from situations that require animals to travel, animal care remains largely the same in terms of breeding programs and animal care.

Fortunately, operations have continued during the pandemic with few major inconveniences.

Strides Towards the Future for Endangered Species

Hagen’s current goals are centered around building assurance colonies of small populations of turtles. He works closely with zoos, aquariums and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, to manage endangered groups of turtles. “Some of [these species] are down to very few individuals and so you’re trying to maximize that genetic diversity over 100 plus years to keep these guys in existence so that we have options for the future,” Hagen said.

The future of conservation work continues to look promising, but that is not to say that organizations are not struggling.

“Your professional zoos, your AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited zoos need support from people more than ever. We’ve been impacted greatly by the pandemic,” Recchio said.

Non-profit accredited zoos and organizations operate with animal welfare and conservation as top priorities, and these institutions make strides in saving critically endangered species; accredited zoos and aquariums invest around $50 million to protect more than 200 species listed as endangered or threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act annually.

“If you simply just want to have a day with your family and, you know, come out and get a churro and come see our wonderful collection of animals, that helps,” Recchio said