Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Ex-situ conservation

Ex-situ conservation means literally, "off-site conservation". It is the process of protecting an endangered species of plant or animal by removing it from an unsafe or threatened habitat and placing it or part of it under the care of humans. While ex-situ conservation is comprised of some of the oldest and best known conservation methods known to man, it also involves newer, sometimes controversial laboratory methods.

Methods of ex-situ conservation

Zoos, botanical gardens and arboretums are the most conventional methods of ex-situ conservation, all of which house whole, protected specimens for breeding and reintroduction into the wild when necessary and possible. These facilities provide not only housing and care for specimens of endangered species, but also have an educational value. They inform the public of the threatened status of endangered species and of those factors which cause the threat, with the hope of creating public interest in stopping and reversing those factors which jeopardize a species' survival in the first place. They are the most publicly visited ex-situ conservation sites, with the WZCS (World Zoo Conservation Strategy) estimating that the 1,100 organized zoos in the world receive more than 600 million visitors annually--roughly ten percent of the world's population.

Endangered plants may also be preserved in part through seedbanks or germplasm banks. The term seedbank sometimes refers to a cryogenic laborotory facility in which the seeds of certain species can be preserved for up to a century or more without losing their fertility. It can also be used to refer to a special type of arboretum where seeds are harvested and the crop is rotated. For plants that cannot be preserved in seedbanks, the only other option for preserving germplasm is in-vitro storage, where cuttings of plants are kept under strict conditions in glass tubes and vessels.

Endangered animal species are preserved using similar techniques. The genetic information needed in the future to reproduce endangered animal species can be preserved in genebanks, which consist of cryogenic facilities used to store living sperm, eggs, or embryos. The Zoological Society of San Diego has established a "frozen zoo" to store such samples from more than 355 species, including mammals, reptiles, and birds.

Drawbacks to ex-situ conservation

Ex-situ conservation, while helpful in man's efforts to sustain and protect our environment, is rarely enough to save a species from extinction. It is to be used as a last resort, or as a suppliment to in-situ conservation because it cannnot recreate the habitat as a whole: the entire genetic variation of a species, its symbiotic counterparts, or those elements which, over time, might help a species adapt to its changing surroundings. Instead, ex-situ conservation removes the species from its natural ecological contexts, preserving it under semi-isolated conditions whereby natural evolution and adaptation processes are either temporarily halted or altered by introducing the specimen to an unnatural habitat. In the case of cryogenic storage methods, the preserved specimen's adaptation processes are frozen altogether. The downside to this is that, when re-released, the species may lack the genetic adaptations and mutations which would allow it to thrive in its ever-changing natural habitat.

Furthermore, ex-situ conservation techniques are often costly, with cryogenic storage being economically infeasable in most cases since species stored in this manner cannot provide a profit but instead slowly drain the financial resources of the government or organization determined to operate them. Seedbanks are ineffective for certain plant genera with recalcitrant seeds that do not remain fertile for long periods of time. Diseases and pests foreign to the species, to which the species has no natural defense, may also cripple crops of protected plants in ex-situ plantations and in animals living in ex-situ breeding grounds. These factors, combined with the specific environmental needs of many species, some of which are nearly impossible to recreate by man, make ex-situ conservation impossible for a great number of the world's endangered flora and fauna.

However, when the extinction of a species is eminent, ex-situ conservation becomes the only option left to humanity. It is simply better to preserve a species in part than to let it die out completely.

See also: in-situ conservation