How breeding programmes work

Colobus Monkey baby at ZSL London Zoo
Good zoos do much more than simply display animals to visitors. They play a vital role in conservation, through breeding species at risk of extinction in the wild.

Indeed, some species, such as the Arabian oryx, California condor, Partula snails, Przewalski's horse and Socorro dove owe their very existence to zoos.

ZSL’s two zoos, ZSL London Zoo and ZSL Whipsnade Zoo, are like Noah's Ark, building up and maintaining genetically healthy populations of animals as a back-up for endangered species like these. But we cannot do this work on our own.

Good zoos work together

We are part of an international community of responsible zoos running co-operative breeding programmes. This in line with the World Zoo Conservation Strategy, a masterplan developed by the global zoo network in collaboration with the World Conservation Union.

Our local region spans Europe and Africa. Together we’ve established a network of breeding programmes called European Endangered Species Programmes (EEPs). Each programme is run by a Species Co-ordinator and is supported by experts at other zoos. The breeding programme for gorillas is run by Frankfurt Zoo in Germany, for instance, while ZSL co-ordinates the tiger population in European zoos. ZSL participates in over 160 of these conservation breeding programmes and manages 11 of them.

How do zoos breed animals?

There's more to it than just putting a male and female together in the same enclosure. Breeding is carefully managed to control numbers and to prevent inbreeding. The aim is to ensure as much genetic variation in the captive population as possible and this is achieved with the aid of a studbook. Computer databases help compile studbooks that record the details of each individual animal on the programme, e.g. its sex, date of birth, and full ancestry. The Species Co-ordinator decides which animals will be paired for breeding and asks the zoos that hold them to transfer the animals. No money changes hands – we're in it to save wildlife.