The vital search for conservation evidence
It sounds like the latest police drama – the Zoo Evidence Officer is on the case, searching for clues, combing through paperwork and tracking down the truth.
In fact, the new post, based at Paignton Zoo in Devon, is about detecting science-based evidence for the best ways to care for, manage and breed animals in zoological collections for conservation purposes.
Wild Planet Trust, the charity that runs Paignton Zoo, Living Coasts in Torquay and Newquay Zoo in Cornwall, has been awarded a grant to recruit a post-doctoral researcher for a year. The Trust’s Field Conservation Research Programmes Manager Dr Andrew Bowkett explained: “There are a lot of opinions and received wisdom – ways of doing things are handed down from person to person. We want to look at the evidence.”
The conservation charity is getting a grant from the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the professional body that represents all top zoos in the country, to create the post. Andy: “This support from BIAZA means we can put the UK zoo community at the forefront of evidence-based practice, making scientific results accessible to everyone, identifying priority areas for husbandry research and providing an important resource for developing key competencies in the zoo keeping profession.
“We were already contributing to the Conservation Evidence project run by the University of Cambridge through short student projects. This has assessed the scientific evidence from thousands of studies for different species groups and habitats. That led to the idea of a full-time post. We put together a proposal and were awarded the grant.”
Post-doctoral researcher, Dr Anaëlle Lemasson, has been appointed as the first ever Zoo Evidence Officer. Anaëlle has been working on the Conservation Evidence marine invertebrate conservation synopsis for the last year, so knows the process well. Her job is to search scientific journals, produce an evidence map of husbandry research and write a synopsis of the evidence for a given topic, such as nutrition.
Andy: “Conservation Evidence is a free, authoritative international information resource created by Cambridge University and designed to support decisions about how to maintain and restore global biodiversity.
“Now, working with the zoo community, we aim to summarise evidence from the scientific literature about the best ways to manage zoo animals. We’ll apply the systematic approach that has been used to collate and assess the evidence for the conservation of groups of species, habitats and themes to the management of animals in zoos.”
Working with Wild Planet Trust and others, the Conservation Evidence team has already assessed the evidence for practices designed to encourage natural feeding behaviour in primates, captive breed amphibians, and promote carnivore health and welfare through feeding practices.
Work is assessed by an international advisory group of academics and practitioners. Different approaches are rated for their effectiveness, based on the evidence. Results are published online www.conservationevidence.com and in an annual open access book ‘What Works in Conservation’, which is fast becoming a major source of management advice for field conservation practitioners.
It’s hoped that extending the remit to zoo animal management will benefit everyone from fieldworkers studying and conserving animals in the wild to keepers, vets and researchers working in zoos, aquariums and captive breeding centres. Andy again: “The aim is to help anyone who is making decisions about how best to manage wild animals in zoological collections for the purposes of conservation.
“Sometimes, conservation is about trekking through jungles with radio tracking equipment, or armed guards on anti-poaching patrols. At other times it’s about a desk, a computer and a whole lot of patience! This work is likely to bring huge benefits for animal health, welfare, and even the survival of species.” Paignton Zoo: www.paigntonzoo.org.uk. Conservation Evidence: www.conservationevidence.com