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15.7: Ex Situ Conservation Strategies

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    The best strategy for protecting biodiversity over the long term is to protect existing wild populations in their natural ecosystems. This strategy, known as on-site, or in situ conservation, not only protect entire ecological communities—including thousands of species and their interactions—but also natural processes and ecosystem services. However, if the last populations of a threatened species are too small to remain viable, if they continue to decline despite conservation efforts, or if their threats do not subside, then in situ conservation may prove ineffective. In such cases, sometimes the only option left to prevent an imminent extinction is to capture those last remaining individuals and transfer them to a facility where they can be cared for under artificial, human-controlled conditions. This strategy is known as off-site, or ex situ conservation, and may involve individuals that were collected in the wild, orphaned, confiscated, or displaced and have nowhere else to go. Thanks to ex situ efforts, many plants and animals that are extinct in the wild continue to survive in zoos, aquaria, and botanical gardens.

    Ex situ and in situ conservation are complementary strategies (Figure 15.7.1; see also Conde et al., 2011). For example, many ex situ conservation programs aim to raise enough healthy individuals to support translocation projects when appropriate habitats are available.

    Figure 15.7.1 There are several ways in which in situ (on site) and ex situ (off-site) conservation can complement each other. No species conforms exactly to this idealized model, but nearly all species present some of these elements. After Maxted, 2001, CC BY 4.0.

    Safeguarding a well-represented sample of the world’s biodiversity play only a small role in ex situ conservation efforts. Maintaining self-sustaining wildlife populations under human care not only reduce the need to collect individuals for research from the wild; it also allows researchers to study aspects such as physiology, genetics, and demographics of threatened species (Conde et al., 2019) using methods that might not be possible without animals in captivity. These studies can then provide knowledge and experience to help protect both ex situ and in situ populations. For example, the establishment of the Demographic Species Knowledge Index (Conde et al., 2019), summarize demographic data obtained from ex situ conservation facilities, play a crucial role in filling gaps in datasets for population viability analyses. Ex situ facilities also play a critical role in captive breeding, head-starting, public outreach, education, and fundraising for in situ conservation. Many ex situ facilities have also become directly involved—and sometimes even taking leading roles—in field conservation efforts (Wilson et al., 2019). Lastly, many ex situ facilities directly connect conservation to social and economic progress through off-site education, employment, and implementation of a range of different community development activities (Ferrie et al., 2013).

    Recent efforts to increase knowledge transfer among ex situ facilities has greatly enhanced their contribution to overall conservation efforts. Facilitated by organizations such as the IUCN’s Conservation Planning Specialist Group (CPSG), ex situ facilities now regularly share information on best practices for care and handling of species in human care, including aspects such as nutritional requirements, optimal housing conditions, and veterinary techniques to anesthetize, immobilize, and reduce stress for animals when they are being moved or during medical treatments (see Much of this information is stored in a central database called the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS). Maintained by Species360, ZIMS keeps track of animal husbandry, medical, and breeding information on over 6.8 million animals belonging to more than 21,000 species for over 1,000 member institutions in 90 countries. Ex situ facilities that maintain these records and comply with operations standards in animal welfare, conservation, education, and research can also apply to become an accredited institution with the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). 

    Types of ex situ facilities

    Many types of facilities help to preserve ex situ populations. Here we describe some of the most common, including zoos and aquaria for animals, and botanical gardens and seed banks for plants.

    Zoos around the world currently contribute to the conservation of nearly 7,000 species of terrestrial vertebrates (mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians) by caring for more than 500,000 individual animals. They do not do this alone; they often work with government agencies, universities, and a variety of other organizations who use zoo animals for research, education, and other conservation activities. While zoos traditionally focused on displaying charismatic animals that draw visitors, many zoos are now also investing in the conservation of small threatened vertebrates, as well as invertebrates, such as butterflies, beetles, dragonflies, spiders, and molluscs (many of which are also cheaper to maintain).

    Aquaria are the aquatic version of zoos, specialized in caring, displaying, and conserving marine and freshwater biodiversity, such as fishes, corals, molluscs, and crustaceans (Figure 15.7.2). Most organisms currently in aquaria have been obtained from the wild, but conservationists are constantly refining techniques to breed more species in captivity to limit wild collecting. Recent and dramatic increases in aquaculture, which currently accounts for roughly a third of fish and shellfish production globally, have made ex situ conservation of aquatic species even more important. The hope is that these ex situ populations will help maintain genetic stocks and act as insurances against disease outbreaks introduced by domestic fish, molluscs, and crustaceans.

    Kelp Forest exhibit full main viewing window at Monterey Bay Aquarium
    Figure 15.7.2 Aquaria provide opportunities to observe species such as those in this Kelp Forest exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which many people would not have experienced otherwise. Photograph by Cam Vilay, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0.

    Botanical gardens (and arboretums, which specialize on trees and other woody plants) are dedicated to the collection, cultivation and educational curation of living plant species (Figure 15.7.3). Botanical gardens across the world house more than 6 million living plants, representing over 80,000 species—approximately 25% of the world’s vascular flora (Wyse Jackson, 2001). The world’s oldest and largest botanical garden—the Royal Botanic Gardens in London, UK—maintains over 28,000 plant taxa, nearly 10% of plant taxa in the world. Like zoos and aquaria, botanical gardens play a critical role in conservation efforts through public outreach and education.

    The Berlin Botanical Garden. A large greenhouse and a pond surrounded by a variety of plant species.
    Figure 15.7.3: The Berlin Botanical Garden. Image by Paul VanDerWerf (CC-BY).

    A few botanical gardens and research institutes have developed collections of seeds, known as seed banks, which take advantage of the fact that seeds of most plants can survive for long periods when stored in cold, dry conditions. The seeds deposited in seed banks may be obtained from the wild, or from cultivated specimens. When gathering material from the wild, botanists generally target populations from across a species’ geographical and habitat ranges so their collections can capture as much of each species’ genetic diversity as possible. In this way, seed banks play a crucial role not only in conservation of plant species richness, but also genetic diversity. Seed banks may even be the only means some plant species are protected. Because many seeds of each species are usually collected, seed banks also provide a convenient opportunity for translocation projects. That is because safeguarded seed collections can be used to propagate not just large numbers of seedlings but, in some cases, custom-developed genetic mixtures to maximize local adaptations. The world’s largest and most diverse seed bank is the Millennium Seed Bank, UK. At the end of 2018, the Millennium Seed Bank cataloged over 2.25 billion seeds from over 39,000 species; its billionth seed, from an African bamboo, was deposited in April 2007.

    Seed banks contribute to conservation of genetic diversity of plants by collecting material across target species’ geographical and habitat ranges.

    Challenges facing ex situ facilities

    While the contribution of ex situ conservation facilities to overall biodiversity conservation strategies is significant (Conde et al., 2011), there are some drawbacks that need to be considered. For example, due to the limited number of individuals that can be maintained under human care, especially for larger animals, there is an increased risk that captive populations may suffer from threats facing small populations, such as inbreeding depression and demographic stochasticity. There is also a concern that ex situ conservation can contribute to hybridization concerns, for example if different cryptic species are accidentally managed as a single species. To avoid these threats, many ex-situ facilities manage their captive populations jointly as a single interbreeding metapopulation. They do this through studbooks which track the origin, pedigree, and demographic history of each individual in participating facilities. By maintaining and referring to these studbooks, ex situ conservation facilities can make informed decisions regarding transfer and breeding recommendations.

    Ex-situ facilities often manage captive populations as a single metapopulation using studbooks to track the origin and demographic history of breeding individuals.

    Funding also remains an obstacle, given that ex situ facilities typically require large, long-term, funding commitments, in comparison to many in situ conservation activities. One consequence of funding limitations is that ex situ facilities mostly focus on showy or charismatic species that attract visitors, so small and less charismatic species are not always afforded equal protection (Brooks et al., 2009). Many ex situ facilities are also more inclined to house non-threatened species that are easier and less costly to care for, rather than threatened species with specialized needs (Table 15.7.1). For example, despite the fear of looming mass amphibian extinctions due to a disease caused by the chytrid fungus (Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis) (Alroy, 2015), 75% of ex situ amphibian collections consist of non-threatened species, with only 6.2% of all threatened amphibians afforded ex situ protection (Dawson et al., 2016). Neglecting threatened species in ex situ conservation efforts also creates a feedback loop, by maintaining a limited understanding on how to care for the species most in need.

    Table 15.7.1 Number and percentages of terrestrial vertebrate species from Sub-Saharan Africa currently maintained in the world’s ex situ facilities. Values in parenthesis represent percentage of all species, threatened species, and CITES-listed species for each taxon class, respectively.







    659 (55%)

    1,470 (65%)

    197 (27%)

    44 (5%)

    2,370 (47%)


    110 (9%)

    234 (10%)

    34 (4%)

    6 (1%)

    384 (8%)


    136 (11%)

    327 (14%)

    22 (3%)

    2 (0%)

    487 (10%)


    37 (3%)

    61 (3%)

    6 (1%)

    1 (0%)

    105 (2%)


    191 (12%)

    465 (20%)

    73 (10%)

    19 (2%)

    748 (15%)

    North America

    145 (12%)

    311 (14%)

    53 (7%)

    14 (2%)

    523 (10%)

    South America

    40 (3%)

    72 (3%)

    197 (27%)

    44 (5%)

    353 (7%)

    Threatened species

    45 (23%)

    42 (20%)

    22 (21%)

    8 (4%)

    117 (16%)

    Extinct in the Wild

    1 (100%)

    0 (0%)

    0 (0%)

    1 (100%)

    2 (100%)

    Critically Endangered

    7 (26%)

    4 (19%)

    5 (25%)

    3 (5%)

    19 (15%)


    13 (16%)

    12 (15%)

    2 (5%)

    3 (3%)

    30 (10%)


    24 (27%)

    26 (23%)

    15 (33%)

    1 (2%)

    66 (23%)

    CITES-listed species

    95 (50%)

    121 (62%)

    45 (25%)

    1 (6%)

    262 (45%)

    Appendix I species

    30 (58%)

    4 (44%)

    8 (80%)

    1 (6%)

    43 (49%)

    Appendix II species

    58 (44%)

    112 (62%)

    37 (22%)

    0 (0%)

    207 (43%)

    Appendix III species

    7 (100%)

    5 (100%)

    0 (0%)

    0 (0%)

    12 (100%)

    Source:, current as of April-2019. Compiled by Johanna Staerk (Species360).

    Fortunately, ex situ facilities have responded to these concerns by developing several innovative mechanisms that enables them to contribute more to the conservation of threatened species. For example, ex situ facilities all agree that attracting more visitors attracts more funding. To attract more visitors, zoos and aquaria are increasingly keeping animals in enclosures that are representative of their natural environments; this keeps the animals healthier and providing more opportunities to exhibit natural behaviors which, in turn, leave visitors more satisfied. Some zoos and aquaria have also established special displays where visitors can feed, touch, or otherwise interact with animals. Many ex situ facilities have also started inviting local artists to display sculptures and other artwork, which adds to the experience for visitors and attracting people that might not otherwise have visited. A rather unusual—but very successful—attempt to increase foot traffic comes from the USA, where the California Academy of Sciences hosts dance parties with laser shows, food, and drinks every Thursday night (, which visitors can enjoy while visiting the Academy’s aquarium and other conservation exhibits.

    This page titled 15.7: Ex Situ Conservation Strategies 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.