The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), which includes 229 organizations worldwide, has launched an ambitious plan to save some of the most vulnerable species from extinction. The project (SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction) will build on already existing efforts, deepening the conservation work done at the accredited zoos and aquariums.

The Asian Elephant is critically endangered. Image via Wiki Commons.

The Asian Elephant is critically endangered. Image via Wiki Commons.

To mark this decision, today, 15 May, all the zoos and aquariums in AZA will shut down their exhibits of endangered animals, closing them off or curtaining them, marking what will happen if no action is taken. At these exhibits, visitors will instead learn what they can do to help protect the species.

In 2012, AZA-accredited institutions provided $160 million in support of approximately 2,700 conservation projects in more than 115 countries. Additionally, scientists associated with zoos and aquariums are constantly working on valuable information, constantly publishing valuable papers and revealing new information. But sadly, if we consider the scale at which animals are vanishing, that’s not enough. This is where SAFE is supposed to step in.

“At its core, SAFE represents a new and unique opportunity to combat the extinction crisis and save vital species,” said Jim Maddy, President and CEO of AZA. “With thousands of scientists and conservationists–more than any other single conservation organization–750,000 animals in their care, and more access to the public to the tune of 180 million visitors annually, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums are poised to make a tremendous difference.”

SAFE will start by focusing on 10 species, adding at least 10 every year. Here are the ones for 2015:

  • African Penguin. Commercial fisheries have forced these penguins to search for prey farther off shore, as well as making them eat less nutritious prey, since their preferred prey has become scarce. Global climate change is also affecting these penguins’ prey abundance. Oil spills are another threat for them.
  • Asian Elephants. They are poached for ivory, meat and leather. Furthermore, humans are now taking more and more of their habitats, which leads to conflicts between locals and elephants – in which the animals never win.
  • Black rhinoceros. Habitat changes and illegal poaching are the main threats for rhinoceros as well. The fact that war is raging on on much of their habitat.
  • Cheetah. The cheetah can run faster than any other land animal, but that doesn’t save it from becoming endangered. Just 12,400 cheetahs remain in the wild in twenty-five African countries.
  • Gorillas. Threats to gorillas include habitat destruction and poaching for the bushmeat trade. In 2004, a population of several hundred gorillas in the Odzala National Park, Republic of Congo was essentially wiped out by the Ebola virus.
  • Sea Turtles. Of the seven species of sea turtles, four are listed on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species as either “endangered” or “critically endangered”.

Green Sea Turtle. Image via Marooned Weekly.

  • Sharks and rays. It is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed by people every year, due to commercial and recreational fishing. Shark finning yields are estimated at 1.41 million tons for 2010.  Rays are also threatened by overfishing.
  • Vaquita. The vaquita is a rare species of porpoise. It is endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California. The estimated number of individuals dropped below 100 in 2014, putting it in imminent danger of extinction.
  • Western pond turtle. The Western pond turtle is already extinct from Canada, and their numbers are drastically reducing in the US and Mexico.
  • Whooping Crane. The whooping crane was declared endangered in 1967. Although believed to be naturally rare, the crane has suffered major population deprivations due to habitat destruction and over-hunting. The population has gone from an estimated 10,000+ birds before the settling of Europeans on the continent to 1,300-1,400 birds by 1870 to 15 adults by 1938. The current population is approximately 382.

So how big is this initiative? Well, according to conservationists, it’s pretty big.

“For years, we’ve worked closely with AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, but SAFE is really a game changer for us,” said Dr. Stephen van der Spuy, Executive Director at SANCCOB, the non-profit leading the effort to protect African penguins and other sea birds in South Africa. “By strategically focusing the work of AZA members, by bringing new resources, and by engaging millions of zoo and aquarium visitors, we’re confident that SAFE can make a real impact.”

There needs to be an immediate impact if we want to preserve these iconic species and many more. We need to come up with valid, sustainable solutions to protect the animals – or better put, we need to stop wiping them out.

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