Captive breeding of an endangered species may ensure their survival when wild populations are severely threatened. It guards against the extinction of a species and, in the case of amphibians, can be both cost-effective and achievable. Captive breeding should not be regarded as a last-resort conservation action – the IUCN (World Conservation Union, part of the United Nations) endorses captive breeding as a proactive conservation measure and recommends it as a vital conservation action for all Critically Endangered species. A captive breeding colony is maintained outside of its natural habitat, giving rise to individuals that are sheltered from problems associated with their wild situation. This can be located within the species’ range, or in a foreign country that has the facilities to support a captive breeding programme for that species. Individuals may subsequently be released into the wild when the factors threatening them have been mitigated.

There are a number of factors that make amphibians good candidates for captive breeding programmes. The positive aspects include:

  • Amphibians are generally quite small and inactive, which makes them relatively cost effective in terms of space and food
  • It may be the only hope of preventing the extinction of a species where, for example, the habitat has been totally destroyed or there is an outbreak of virulent disease
  • Captive breeding colonies enable researchers to learn more about a species, which can help improve conservation actions for the species in the wild.
  • A captive breeding programme can be established for an amphibian in a relatively small area of a zoo, serving the dual purpose of education and conservation.
However, there are a number of concerns about captive breeding, which means it may not always the ideal solution to the conservation of a species:
  • Captive breeding is costly for larger species, such as giant salamanders
  • Released individuals from captive colonies can introduce disease into wild populations
  • After several generations in captivity, species can become less able to survive in the wild, in terms of immune defenses, genetic fitness, and the ability to respond to their natural habitat
  • It is very difficult, or seemingly impossible, to breed some species in captivity as they may have very specific breeding requirements that are currently not understood
  • In an increasing number of cases, there may be no wild habitat left for captive bred species

By coordinating global captive breeding efforts for amphibians, the Amphibian Ark (AArk) has entered the battle against the mass extinction of the world’s amphibians at a crucial time. It has the power to resuscitate amphibian populations that have been ravaged by chytrid, over-collection, and habitat degradation. But what can it do in the long-term for a species when there is no hope of returning it to its wild habitat? Where the streams have run dry, or the area has been destroyed by human land uses? Can you really keep a species in captive, artificial conditions indefinitely and say that it still survives? Or is it just a living museum specimen to remind us of what used to populate our tattered ecosystems? These are difficult questions for the AArk, but it seems insupportable to do nothing in the face of such potential losses.

In 2008, AArk will lead zoos, botanical gardens and aquariums in a globally coordinated public awareness campaign “The Year of the Frog”. The main goal of this campaign is to generate public awareness and understanding of the amphibian extinction crisis which represents the greatest species conservation challenge in the history of humanity. The money raised from this global campaign will help fund initiatives such as training courses, technical guidance, taxon survival efforts, fostering partnerships, capacity building, and communication activities. All these activities will ensure sustainability of the survival assurance populations of amphibians by creating a cash fund for this conservation work that will extend for beyond 2008.

Click here to read information about captive breeding provided by Dr. Kevin Zippel, Programme Director of the Amphibian Ark.

ZSL is working to breed the Malagasy rainbow frog in captivity.

Captive Breeding Centre
Visit the Amphibian Ark for more information about conserving amphibians in captivity.