Skip to main content
Biology LibreTexts

11.2: Saving Species Through Translocations

  • Page ID
  • \( \newcommand{\vecs}[1]{\overset { \scriptstyle \rightharpoonup} {\mathbf{#1}} } \) \( \newcommand{\vecd}[1]{\overset{-\!-\!\rightharpoonup}{\vphantom{a}\smash {#1}}} \)\(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \(\newcommand{\id}{\mathrm{id}}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\) \( \newcommand{\kernel}{\mathrm{null}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\range}{\mathrm{range}\,}\) \( \newcommand{\RealPart}{\mathrm{Re}}\) \( \newcommand{\ImaginaryPart}{\mathrm{Im}}\) \( \newcommand{\Argument}{\mathrm{Arg}}\) \( \newcommand{\norm}[1]{\| #1 \|}\) \( \newcommand{\inner}[2]{\langle #1, #2 \rangle}\) \( \newcommand{\Span}{\mathrm{span}}\)\(\newcommand{\AA}{\unicode[.8,0]{x212B}}\)

    Because the probability of extinction increases rapidly for small populations (Section 8.7), conservation biologists often invest considerable energy into increasing the size of small and declining populations. Often, these projects involve improving the extent and quality of suitable habitat (Chapter 10) or mitigating threats such as overharvesting (Chapter 12). When appropriate, conservation biologists may sometimes resort to translocations—moving individuals from sites where they are threatened (e.g. unprotected lands or a paper park) or overabundant (e.g. a well-managed protected area or ex situ conservation facility) to sites where they can offer a larger contribution to conservation efforts.

    Understanding a species’ ecological needs is critically important for translocations, because it influences the choice of release site and type of preparations needed.

    Conservation biologists generally recognize four basic translocation approaches:

    • Restocking (also called augmentation) occurs when wildlife managers increase the size and genetic diversity of existing populations, by releasing individuals that have been raised in captivity or that have been obtained from other wild populations.
    • Reintroduction occurs when wildlife managers release individuals into areas where they occurred in the past but not at present. The areas must be ecologically suitable and the factors that caused the extirpation must have been reduced or eliminated for a reintroduction to be successful.
    • Introduction involves creating new populations by moving individuals to suitable areas outside that species’ historical range. Introductions are usually considered when reintroductions are impossible because the species’ historical range has been degraded too severely or because persistent threats will lead to reintroduction failure.
    • Assisted colonisation (also called assisted migration) is a special class of introduction where biologists “assist” species with poor dispersal capabilities to adapt their ranges in response to environmental changes. It is anticipated that this strategy will become an important conservation tool in preventing extinctions where climate change outpaces the speed of natural migration.

    Important considerations for translocations

    Section 11.1 broadly discussed the importance of understanding the ecological and other natural history needs when protecting threatened species. Understanding a species’ ecological needs is equally, if not more, important for translocations, because it influences the choice of release site and type of preparations needed (Figure 11.4). Complementing the 10 factors mentioned in Section 11.1, the next section briefly introduces some of the most important considerations during translocations.

    Figure 11.4 A team of wildlife rehabilitators release a group of Cape vultures (Gyps coprotheres, EN) near a vulture restaurant in South Africa. Releasing the vultures near a supplemental food source greatly enhances their chances for survival after release. The vultures have wing tags to enable monitoring of each individual after release. Photograph by VulPro, CC BY 4.0.

    Determining need and feasibility

    Perhaps the most important factor to consider before starting a translocation is to determine whether it is necessary. Translocations carry risks, not only for the target population to be moved, but also the individuals left behind and for the recipient ecosystem. These risks expose translocation projects to a high risk of failure, particularly if preparations are inadequate and essential resources (e.g. funding, trained staff) are in short supply. Translocations also demand considerable resources—resources that can at times be better spent mitigating the threats the target population face. While these considerations may seem obvious, a recent review found that most translocations projects are initiated without proper cost-benefit analyses (Pérez et al., 2012). To improve translocation practices, conservationists seriously considering a translocation project are encouraged to review the 10 criteria outlined in Pérez et al. (2012), some of which also overlap with the considerations mentioned below.

    Support from local stakeholders

    It is also important to consider, at an early stage, how the public will view the translocation project. Some people may feel the resources used in a translocation are better invested elsewhere; others dislike translocations because they view it as a threat to their livelihood—this is especially true when carnivores are involved (Gusset et al., 2008a). Because of these and other potential conflicts and emotions, it is crucial that translocation projects (like any conservation activity) obtain the support from local stakeholders at an early stage. It is helpful to be transparent from the outset and to explain the project’s goals, as well as the benefits the local community may gain (e.g. attract more tourists, restore a degraded ecosystem service). Good public outreach also provides opportunities to address the public’s concerns and misconceptions about the project and about biodiversity conservation in general.

    Identifying suitable habitat

    It goes without saying that the probability for success is greatly improved when the translocated individuals are released in good quality habitat. This is particularly true for species with poor dispersal capabilities, such as plants that reproduce through vegetative propagation: the plants could die in an environment that is too sunny, shady, wet, or dry. While this point may seem obvious, many translocations fail because individuals are released in inferior habitats (Armstrong and Seddon, 2007). One of the reasons for this potential habitat mismatch is because wildlife may perceive the environment differently than humans, so a site that may look good to the human eye may lack one or more overlooked limiting resource. Refugee species—species forced to live in suboptimal habitat due to threats present in their preferred habitat (e.g. Ali et al., 2017)—also present a challenge to biologists who may unwittingly view inferior habitat as optimal and base conservation decisions on essentially bad information. The same challenge presents itself at ecological traps—unsuitable environments that an organism mistakenly perceives as optimal habitat (e.g. Sherley et al., 2017). These are some of the most important reasons why biologists need to be cautions when using species distribution models (SDM) when identifying areas suitable for translocations. To mitigate costly translocation failures, it is advisable that releases start small, and have multiple phases, to assess how released individuals respond to their new environment. Conducting experimental and adaptive releases can also reduce uncertainty by evaluating different release scenarios (Menges et al., 2016).

    Species forced to live in suboptimal habitat due to threats present in their preferred habitat may lead biologists to unwittingly view inferior habitat as optimal.

    It is also important to ensure that any habitat identified as suitable is free from threats such as pollution and invasive species that may lead to declining health or even death for released individuals. A project in the Cape Floristic Region in South Africa provides a good example of how alert conservation biologists mitigated a threat that could have caused a translocation failure. The Clanwilliam sandfish (Labeo seeberi, EN) was once widespread in the region’s Olifants-Doring River system. However, recent surveys indicated that the species had gone extinct in the Olifants River. Although biologists did find some juvenile fish in the Doring River and some of its tributaries, they also noticed that invasive fish predated on most of those juveniles before they reached adulthood (Jordaan et al., 2017). These ill-fated individuals were thus dispersing from the last remaining reproductive subpopulation persisting in the headwaters of one single Doring tributary to other parts of the river, which acted as a population sink. To prevent the species’ extinction, biologists initiated a habitat restoration plan involving restoring natural stream flow regimens and eradicating predatory invasive fish in the headwaters of a second Doring tributary. They then installed barriers that prevented invasive fish from reaching the restored area before translocating 338 juvenile fish (Figure 11.5) there. With this habitat restoration plan, the biologists hope to establish a second viable population, and to improve the juveniles’ chances of surviving to adulthood before they disperse back to areas where the invasive fishes occur (Jordaan et al., 2017).

    Figure 11.5 (Top) Conservation biologists collecting threatened Clanwilliam sandfish for a reintroduction project in the Cape Floristic Region, South Africa. Photograph by John Lucas/explore4knowledge®, CC BY 4.0. (Bottom) A close-up view of Clanwilliam sandfish. Photograph by Gustav Klotz/explore4knowledge®, CC BY 4.0.

    Considering genetics and behavior

    Translocation projects also need to consider the genetic makeup, social organization, and behavior of a species that is being released. It is preferable to use individuals from the same genetic stock as individuals that already occur (or have occurred) in the release area to avoid outbreeding depression and to capture local adaptations (Sections 8.7.1). Such efforts simultaneously also contribute to conservation of genetic diversity, as opposed to the pollution thereof if individuals from different genetic stock are mixed.

    Group-living species, particularly those vulnerable to Allee effects (Section 8.7.2), need to be released in sufficient numbers so they can maintain their natural social organization and behavior. For species that need to be released in groups, it is preferable to release socially integrated animals rather than individuals unfamiliar with each other (Gusset et al., 2008b). Releasing groups of animals does have its own set of challenges. For example, social groups abruptly released from captivity may disperse explosively, possibly leading to project failure. This happened with African buffalo (Syncerus caffer, NT) herds translocated to South Africa’s Addo Elephant National Park which fragmented into smaller groups after release, making them more vulnerable to lion (Panthera leo, VU) predation (Tambling et al., 2013). Fortunately, in this case, the buffaloes underwent several behavioral modifications over time, which eventually allowed their numbers to stabilise (Box 11.2). This contrasts with failed rock hyrax (Procavia capensis, LC) reintroductions in South Africa, where group disintegration post release exposed the animals to unsustainable predation levels (Wimberger et al., 2009).

    Box 11.2 Large Predator Reintroductions: A Balancing Act

    Craig J. Tambling

    Department of Zoology and Entomology, University of Fort Hare,

    Alice, South Africa.

    Large predator numbers are declining, and African carnivores are no exception (Ripple et al. 2014). How to conserve African carnivores are a hotly debated topic now, with “fortress” type conservation areas considered the most viable option by many (Packer et al., 2013). In South Africa, this conservation model is the norm, and many small protected areas are now translocating large carnivores for ecotourism. However, these large carnivore translocations have repercussions for resident prey species. Understanding the ecological and biodiversity consequences of these translocations is thus important for the management of these small protected areas (Tambling et al., 2014).

    In 2003, lions and spotted hyenas (Crocuta crocuta, LC) were reintroduced into the Addo Elephant National Park Main Camp Section after being absent from the area for over 100 years. Post-release monitoring of the six reintroduced lions indicated that at least 50% of their diet in the first two years following reintroduction was African buffalo. This was especially concerning to South African National Parks as this resident buffalo population contributes substantially to game auction sales each year, with the money raised being used to expand the national park system in South Africa (SANParks, 2009).

    Following high predation rates of buffalo by lion and a 2007 buffalo census suggesting low juvenile recruitment, the coexistence of lion and buffalo in Addo was questioned. These concerns lead to a detailed assessment of buffalo behavior and demographics between 2008 and 2011 (Tambling et al., 2012), which showed that by 2008–2009, juvenile buffalo recruitment (Figure 11.B) had rebounded to levels reminiscent of those prior to the lion reintroduction. Direct observations of the buffalo population showed drastic behavioral alteration following the high initial predation rates by lions. These behavioral changes included: (1) increased breeding herd sizes, (2) a reduction in nocturnal movement, and (3) greater use of open habitats at night and early morning when lions are hunting. These behavioral adjustments enabled the active defence of the breeding herds, reducing successful predation by lions and ensuring an increase in buffalo recruitment. Although this study suggests that prey populations are capable of behavioral adjustments to reduce predation, this is not always the case, with some species unable to respond, leading to precipitous declines in prey populations such as eland (Tragelaphus oryx, LC) (Leaver, 2014).

    Figure 11.B After lions were reintroduced into the Addo Elephant National Park Main Camp Section, high levels of predation of buffalo (in particular, juveniles) prompted an investigation into the demographics and behavior of the buffalo population. Results showed that buffalo were adjusting their behavior to make greater use of open habitats, which subsequently led to improved juvenile buffalo survival. Photograph by C. Tambling, CC BY 4.0.

    The ultimate aim of most translocation projects is to establish populations that are self-sustaining, free from inbreeding, and interactive participants of their communities and ecosystems.

    Case studies of predator-prey interactions following large predator reintroductions highlight the management challenges faced by small reserves where ecotourism, biodiversity, and financial goals each need to be met. Due to the small size of these “fortress” reserves, a local overabundance of predators can have severe ecological effects on prey populations. However, in many reserves, the high demand for large predators for ecotourism often results in costly reactive, rather than scientifically sound proactive, management. There is, however, a growing body of research on the proactive management of large carnivores, where wildlife managers aim to replicate ecological processes (i.e. lion inter-birth intervals) to limit management interventions required to control large predator numbers (Ferreira and Hofmeyr, 2014). In small reserves, lion inter-birth intervals are shorter than in large ecosystems, and so lengthening the inter-birth intervals to that observed in large ecosystems can reduce lion population growth rate in these small reserves (Miller et al., 2015). Understanding predator-prey interactions is important regardless of the conservation model employed to protect these large charismatic species.

    How many individuals to release

    The ultimate aim of translocation projects is to establish ecologically relevant populations, meaning populations that are self-sustaining, free from inbreeding, and an interactive participant of its community and ecosystem. The probability of achieving this goal increases as more individuals are being released. Because translocation projects typically do not have an unlimited supply of individuals to release, wildlife managers often rely on quantitative models (Section 9.2) to estimate the minimum number of individuals that should be released and how many times releases should occur. For example, a population viability analysis (PVA) on western lowland gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla, CR) reintroduced to Gabon and the Republic of the Congo showed that the probability of persistence of an apparently established population could be increased significantly if more individuals were released (King et al., 2014).

    The ability to establish new populations through translocations does not reduce the need to protect threatened species still in their natural habitats.

    While releasing more individuals certainly improves the likelihood of establishing a self-sustaining population, it is also important to determine how many individuals the target community can sustain. In other words, the release area should contain enough suitable habitat to support the territories of all the released individuals. To determine how many individuals can be sustained, wildlife managers may calculate the release area’s carrying capacity—an estimate of the maximum number of individuals an ecosystem can support. The carrying capacity concept has its roots in the livestock trade, where farmers wanted to maximise the number of animals on their land without risking overgrazing. While the concept has gained popularity in conservation biology in recent decades, calculating the carrying capacity for wildlife is very complex because of all the multi-faceted interactions that characterize healthy ecosystems. For example, the carrying capacity for a wild population can depend on factors such as food, water, shelter, soil nutrients, and sunlight availability, as well as more species-specific natural history factors such as habitat quality, home range, sex ratios (Tambling et al., 2014), and interactions with other species (Lindsey et al., 2011).

    Over the past few decades, through trial and error, adaptive management (Section 10.2.3), and the collection of vast amounts of demographic data, scientists have made significant progress in calculating carrying capacity for wildlife populations. Perhaps the most progress has been made in calculating carrying capacities for large ungulates, by monitoring vegetation biomass, which in turn is affected by soil nutrients and rainfall (Fritz and Duncan, 1994). Much progress has also been made in calculating carrying capacities of predators by monitoring prey densities (Hayward et al., 2007a). For most populations, however, carrying capacity isn’t explicitly calculated, but implicitly estimated based on intuition. Refining existing carrying capacity models and developing new methods for other taxa remain an active area of research that will hopefully reduce conservation biologists’ over-reliance on intuition in future years. But even in the absence of carrying capacity calculations, wildlife managers can track a population’s health and overall fitness. When the health of a particularly successful population or its environment starts declining, a root cause may be that too many individuals have been released, or the population is being sustained above carrying capacity.

    Preparing individuals for release

    Translocation projects using individuals obtained from the wild are generally much more successful than those using captive-bred individuals, given that wild individuals are already adapted to a life where they must fend for themselves. Nevertheless, some projects may have to use captive-bred individuals, particularly when the target species is extinct in the wild, or when individuals were brought to an ex situ conservation facility because it is easier to breed them under human care in controlled conditions. In such cases, a great amount of effort may be required to prepare the captive-bred individuals for releases.

    A great amount of effort may be required to prepare captive-bred individuals for translocation because they may have lost adaptations required for survival and reproduction in the wild.

    A major drawback when using captive-bred individuals is that they may have lost the important adaptations required for survival and successful reproduction in the wild. Pre-release training, which varies according to the species, can sometimes overcome this drawback. For predators, it may involve providing low risk prey, such as chickens and domestic rabbits in holding facilities until their hunting skills are better developed (Houser et al., 2011). For plants propagated indoors, it may involve hardening them off by placing them outside for increasingly longer periods to gradually introduce them to sun, wind, and temperature changes during the day. To help young birds disassociate humans from food, human trainers sometimes use puppets or wear costumes (Figure 11.6) during feeding time to mimic the appearance and behavior of wild individuals (Valutis and Marzluff, 1999). Another method, which may promote behavioral enrichment, involves cross-fostering, in which unrelated parents helps raise the offspring of a threatened species. In carnivore conservation, this technique has shown much promise to augment litter size and encourage gene flow using orphaned African wild dog (Lycaon pictus, EN) pups (McNutt et al., 2008). Interspecific cross-fostering has also been used in bird conservation, where biologists use common species to incubate eggs abandoned by threatened species (e.g. Powell and Cuthbert, 1993). However, cross-fostering using different species may lead to a new set of problems, like behavioral changes and hybridisation, if the young subsequently associate with the wrong species. A great amount of care and research are thus needed before such strategies are attempted.

    Figure 11.6 Wattled cranes (Grus carunculate, VU) sometimes lay two eggs, but always abandon the second egg. Conservation biologists in South Africa are collecting the discarded eggs, which are then hatched in a captive breeding program. To avoid the captive chicks associating humans with food and safety after release, handlers use special crane costumes when interacting with the birds. Photograph by Daniel Dolpire, CC BY 4.0.

    Whether using captive-bred or wild individuals for translocations, individuals may have to be fed, sheltered, trained, or otherwise cared for after release to give them time to become more familiar with their new surroundings. This approach, known as soft release, involves keeping the released individuals in pre-release holding facilities for a period; it may also include some form of assistance after release to increase opportunities for success. Soft releases also provide an opportunity to introduce captive-bred organisms to wild individuals of the same species that can act as “instructors” for survival in the new environment, or for unfamiliar individuals to bond into cohesive units (Gusset et al., 2006).

    The alternative to soft release is a hard release—an abrupt release of individuals from captivity without assistance such as food supplementation. While hard releases are popular (because they are relatively easy to perform), it is a risky strategy that faces a high risk to failure (Brown et al., 2007; Wimberger et al., 2009). Hard releases can however be appropriate under the right conditions (Hayward et al., 2007b). For example, hard releases are often use in head-starting programs (Figure 11.7) for reptiles and amphibians (Scheele et al., 2014), where conservation biologists collect wild individuals and raise them past their most vulnerable life stages before releasing them again where they were collected.

    Figure 11.7 Local children releasing leatherback sea turtles (Dermochelys coriacea, VU) as part of an environmental education project in Equatorial Guinea. Known as head-starting, conservationists would sometimes collect sea turtle eggs in the wild, hatched in captivity, and raise the offspring past their most vulnerable stage before releasing them back where they were found. Photograph by Katharine Clukey/TOMAGE-INDEFOR, CC BY 4.0.

    Post-release monitoring

    A translocation project does not end after the last individual was released. Rather, ongoing monitoring should be implemented to determine whether a translocation was successful, what degree of success was achieved, whether adaptive management is needed, whether additional releases should be conducted, or whether the project should be aborted. A well-designed monitoring plan can also highlight the consequences of translocation on the broader ecosystem, such as the impact that predators introduced to a new area may have on prey populations (Box 11.2) and competing species (Groom et al., 2017). Because some responses in translocated populations can be rather subtle and take many years to show or subside, post-release monitoring should ideally be a long-term endeavour. For example, by monitoring seemingly successful elephant reintroductions across five protected areas in South Africa, researchers found that stress hormones in released animals continued to decline 24 years post release (Jachowski et al., 2013). Long-term monitoring will also help wildlife managers better understand the ultimate fate of the released individuals. Many apparently successful translocations fail because the released individuals die after several years without ever reproducing. Highlighting the importance of post-release monitoring, one study from South Africa found that 70% of captive-bred oribi (Oribia oribi, LC) died within two months of release, mostly due to predation (Grey-Ross et al., 2009). Another study found that reintroduced cheetahs were all killed within a year of release (Houser et al., 2011). These were expensive lessons, but post-release monitoring ensured that the reason for failures are known and can be addressed ahead of future releases.

    Helping other translocation projects

    Strategies used in successful translocation projects were nearly always informed by releases conducted by other wildlife managers who circulated their experiences to the wider conservation community. It is important to pay this effort forward; new translocation projects should make every effort to track and publish their results to inform others. While it is always easier to present the results of successful projects, publishing the lessons from failed projects is also important (Wimberger et al., 2010; Godefroid et al., 2011). Equally important is the publication of project costs, to enable wildlife managers to better determine under which conditions translocations represent a cost-effective conservation strategy. For example, a large African wild dog reintroduction program in South Africa achieved their initial goal of establishing nine self-sustaining packs much more quickly than expected—five years rather than 10—yet reintroducing all these populations cost 20 times more than if the funds were used to enhance protection of existing packs within protected areas (Lindsey et al., 2005). With more information available, future conservationists would hopefully be able to have better guidelines to maximise cost-effectiveness and the likelihood of project success.

    This page titled 11.2: Saving Species Through Translocations is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by John W. Wilson & Richard B. Primack (Open Book Publishers) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.