Why Captive Breeding?

Captive breeding means that members of a wild species are captured, then bred and raised in a special facility under the care of wildlife biologists and other experts.

Captive Breeding as a Conservation Tool
Captive breeding is expensive and doesn't always work. (Some species, such as giant pandas, rarely breed successfully in captivity.) But captive breeding has some amazing success stories and several good reasons to try it. Bringing an animal into captivity may represent the last chance to preserve a species in the wild in these situations:

  • When a population drops dangerously, captive breeding can boost numbers. Captive-produced young can sometimes be released into the wild where populations have diminished or disappeared, yet where suitable habitat remains to support them. For example, the very low numbers of wild Whooping Cranes caused biologists to try safeguarding the species through captive breeding. Starting in 1967, eggs were collected from the the last remaining natural migratory flock. Eggs were collected for several years by biologists. These eggs became the birds of small captive populations that now provide chicks for projects to help bring Whooping Cranes back from the brink of extinction. Thanks to captive breeding, experts began in 2001 to establish a second wild migratory flock of Whooping Cranes to safeguard this highly endangered species.
  • When all of the existing habitat is poor quality or other environmental problems occur, a captive population can be maintained until the problems can be solved or another appropriate habitat can be found for the animal in the wild. This kind of project allows us to bank a species. The California condor is an example of a bird that has been temporarily banked in captivity.
  • When the existing habitat is fragmented, as in the case of the extremely rare Philippine eagle, captive breeding combined with management of the wild eagle may provide the only hope for survival by providing opportunities for genetic mixing. This eagle has been known to exist on only four of the 7,000-plus islands that make up the Republic of the Philippines, and captive breeding programs try to maintain separate genetic lines. Through the addition and exchanges of young captive birds, scientists can help prevent inbreeding by mixing the birds on each island genetically.
  • When a group of birds stays in one area of degraded habitat because they are behaviorally trapped, captive breeding and release programs can help them to expand their range. Mauritius kestrels appeared to be doomed when they did not leave their small area of diminishing natural forest. But captive-bred young Mauritius kestrels were released into other areas and habitats on Mauritius, where they quickly adapted and thrived.
  • By holding and breeding birds in captivity we learn a great deal about them that may be difficult or impossible to accomplish in the wild. Sometimes this scientific research provides some of the information necessary to save a species.

Try This! Journaling Questions and Activities

  1. Prepare a list of questions to ask about captive breeding if you could interview an expert. What special challenges are faced by captive breeding facilities and researchers? Why is captive breeding a decision that should not be taken lightly? How could you get answers to your questions? Next spring, send your toughest question about captive breeding of whooping cranes to Journey North's Ask the Crane Expert.
  2. Create presentations about endangered species for which captive breeding programs are underway or have proved successful. For example, the USGS Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland has captive breeding programs for several species. The International Crane Foundation in Baraboo, Wisconsin has captive breeding facilities for many crane species. The World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho captive breeds endangered raptors such as the harpy eagle and peregrine falcon.
  3. Interested students may wish to investigate an unfolding captive-breeding success story and report on the status of black-footed ferret today. The quest to save black-footed ferrets (Mustela nigripes) has been called the environmental detective story of the 1980s. Until a Wyoming ranch dog brought home a dead black-footed ferret in 1981, many experts thought this rare mammal was extinct. Then, when diseases were wiping out both ferret prey and the ferrets themselves, the Wyoming Game and Fish Department and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service faced an emergency. Unless they did something fast, ferrets would go extinct. (What would YOU do?) By February 1987 the last known member of the world's only free-ranging ferret colony was captured. With these 18 captive ferrets, the species had a chance for survival. Since then, ferrets have been released back into the wild. Conduct research to find out how they're doing!

National Science Education Standards

  • All organisms must be able to obtain and use resources, grow, reproduce, and maintain stable internal conditions in a constantly changing external environment.
  • Environments are the spaces, conditions, and factors that affect an individual's and a population's ability to survive and their quality of life.
  • Scientists use different kinds of investigations depending on the questions they are trying to answer.
  • People have always had problems and invented tools and techniques to solve problems.