The Species Survival Plan (SSP) program began in 1981 as a cooperative population management and conservation program for selected species in zoos and aquariums in North America. Each SSP manages the breeding of a species in order to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable.
Beyond this, SSPs participate in a variety of other cooperative conservation activities, such as research, public education, reintroduction, and ﬁeld projects. Currently, 108 SSPs covering 159 individual species are administered by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, whose membership includes accredited zoos and aquariums throughout North America.
A species must satisfy a number of criteria to be selected for an SSP. Most SSP species are endangered or threatened in the wild and have the interest of qualiﬁed professionals with time to dedicate toward their conservation. Also, SSP species are often “ﬂagship species”—well-known animals which arouse strong feelings in the public for their preservation and the protection of their habitat. Examples of ﬂagship species include the giant panda, the California condor, and the Lowland gorilla.
New SSPs are approved by the appropriate Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), which manages conservation programs for related groups of species (apes, raptors, freshwater ﬁsh, etc.) or by the AZA Wildlife Conservation and Management Committee (WCMC).
Each SSP has a qualiﬁed species coordinator who is responsible for managing day-to-day activities. Management committees composed of elected experts assist the coordinator with the conservation efforts for the particular species, including population management, research, education, and reintroduction. In addition, each institution holding an SSP animal has a representative who attends SSP meetings and coordinates relevant SSP activities at that institution.
The overall program is administered by the AZA Conservation and Science Department in Silver Spring, MD in consultation with the WCMC. Non-member institutions may participate in SSPs, but they must adhere to AZA’s Code of Professional Ethics and have appropriate facilities and expertise to care for the animals.
An SSP master plan outlines the goals for the population. It designs the family tree of a particular managed population in order to achieve maximum genetic diversity and demographic stability. Breeding and other management recommendations are made for each animal with consideration given to the logistics and feasibility of transfers between institutions, as well as maintenance of natural social groupings. Often, master plans include recommendations not to breed animals, so as to avoid having the population outgrow the available holding space.
Studbooks are fundamental to the successful operation of SSPs. Each one contains the vital records of an entire managed population of a species, including births, deaths, transfers, and family lineage.
With appropriate analysis, a studbook enables the species coordinator and management group to develop a master plan containing sound breeding recommendations based on genetics, demographics, and the species’ biology. Data for each studbook is compiled and constantly updated by a studbook keeper who has knowledge of the species and time to assist in its conservation.
SSPs also develop husbandry manuals that set guidelines based on the best current scientiﬁc knowledge for the diet and care of the species in captivity. With standardized practices, it is easier to detect potential health and husbandry problems. In addition, because the guidelines provide consistency among participating institutions, it is also easier to transfer animals between institutions when necessary.
Several SSPs include reintroduction projects, although reintroduction of animals to the wild is not the goal of every SSP. For native species, SSPs are often linked to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Endangered Species Recovery Plans.
While managed breeding for reintroduction is not a panacea for the endangered species problem, it is sometimes the only option for reestablishing healthy wild populations. Reintroduction projects have been successful in returning certain species to their natural places in the ecosystem. Several species, such as black-footed ferrets, California condors, and red wolves, have been brought back from the brink of extinction through successful managed breeding programs.
SSPs for which reintroduction is not appropriate have a positive impact on assisting the wild population through fund-raising to support ﬁeld projects and habitat protection, development of new technologies, public and professional education programs, and basic and applied research.