If you lived in Atlanta in 2006, you probably heard a lot about a special little lady named Mei Lan -- unless you were hiding under a pretty large rock. That's because after years of attempting to breed giant pandas Lun Lun and Yang Yang, the folks at Zoo Atlanta were finally successful and Lun Lun popped out a little delivery of adorable.
Despite this win, the fact remains that breeding giant pandas is a challenging and costly endeavor. And while some endangered species respond well to conservation efforts and breeding programs, others aren't as effective. For example, snow leopards and lowland gorillas join giant pandas as notoriously tricky species to breed in captivity.
Captive breeding programs have two main goals: to build population numbers and to maintain healthy gene pools. They may also aim for reintroduction into the wild, depending on the specifics of the situation.
In cases where reintroduction is the goal, there have been several success stories over the years -- California condors, red wolves and black-footed ferrets are a few examples. But sometimes breeding programs are fraught with difficulty. It can be challenging to build up sustainable numbers; there can be complications with reintroducing captive-bred animals; there can be a hefty price tag with little tangible return; and, breeding can distract attention and resources from other important conservation strategies like habitat recovery.
But this doesn't mean it's not worth trying to save some species, especially if they pass a cost-benefit analysis or if they're deemed a flagship, keystone or indicator species. Flagship species, like Zoo Atlanta's pandas, act as ambassadors for lesser-known species, helping raise awareness and funds. Keystone species play critical roles in their ecosystems, perhaps by pollinating plants or spreading seeds. And indicator species demonstrate the health of a habitat, in terms of factors like water quality and toxin levels.
Any species that falls into these categories could be considered for conservation efforts. Some flagship species include big names like rhinos, wolves, elephants, leopards, polar bears, tigers and dolphins. It's hard to imagine anyone wouldn't be able to automatically recognize them, but what about the less calendar-worthy species that share their habitats? Often by working to conserve one species, you help the others and achieve even more powerful results.