ANIMAL CONSERVATION EFFORTS THROUGH AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP) and Saving Animals from Extinction (SAFE)

Written by Shari LaRue, Docent


Last month’s article focused on conservation efforts at the Topeka Zoo with the emphasis on what we do at the Zoo to reduce, reuse and recycle and how we raise money for conservation efforts. Our conservation efforts include conservation of animal species. On site, we provide care for the animals to maintain their physical, social and mental health.  The animals have attentive keepers and a full time veterinarian to address annual wellness examinations and care when a medical concern arises. In addition to that, we participate in animal breeding programs through AZA to help maintain a healthy and genetically diverse population. We educate the public to increase awareness of the importance of conservation efforts and the plight of many of these animals in the wild. We support national and global conservation efforts through raising conservation funding and distributing those funds to many different national and global conservation efforts. As an AZA accredited facility, our staff work within the guidelines of SSP (Species Survival Plan) in breeding programs for maintaining genetic diversity in managed populations.


The days when a zoo would purchase a wild captured animal and bring it to their zoo is long gone. AZA accredited zoos work together to provide a genetically diverse, healthy population of animals through SSPs.


AZA began SSP programming in 1981. So, how exactly does it work? There are about 500 animals currently in the Species Survival Plan. The SSP coordinates with participating zoos and aquariums on conservation research, husbandry, management and educational initiatives for each of the 500 identified and managed species. This very sophisticated “dating service” for the animals ensures that good genetic diversity occurs for breeding purposes. Keeping each species genetically diverse is crucial for the future of the species.  With AZA zoos and aquariums, working together the goal is to increase the population of select animals to sustain a genetically viable population over a 100-year period. The SSP also works with regional and international species conservation programs to support the species in the wild.


The organization within AZA is complex. Each Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) communicates with a Wildlife Conservation Management Committee. Under the TAG is the individual SSP coordinators.  The Taxon Advisory Group is responsible for the breeding and transfer plans. Selecting by identifying population management goals and making recommendations to ensure that each species has a sustainable, healthy and genetically diverse population. Done through volunteer efforts of zookeepers who coordinates and distributes SSP breeding and transfer plans for a specific managed population. These individuals are the primary contact and are a resource as an AZA expert for the species they manage.


There are “candidate” species that are not yet in an SSP. Candidates species still need to be managed due to decreasing populations in the wild. Our Animal Curator and Elephant Manager, Wrylie Guffey coordinates a candidate species. She is the candidate program leader and studbook keeper for the Superb Starling.


Because AZA member institutions recognize the importance of long-term survival and the conservation of these animals, any recommendation made for breeding and transfers is generally accepted.  When animals transfer from one institution to another, each animal’s record or data sheet transfers with them. As you can imagine, keeping track of what animal has been donated or loaned, what facility it came from and where it was placed, number of offspring and where each one went and who the offspring belong to (both parents as well as what institution) is a time-consuming job. All the details are crucial to maintain records that reflect the genealogy of each of the animals.


On our end of this process, the Topeka Zoo has an Animal Welfare and Wellness Committee This committee reviews the current animal collection needs and incoming or outgoing animal transfer recommendations. The Topeka Zoo has 32 different species that are in a Species Survival Plan through AZA. A few of those you all will know well include, giraffe, orangutan, Asian elephant, African elephant, golden lion tamarins, African painted dogs, African lions and Sumatran tigers to name a just a few.


In addition, we financially support the Sumatran Tiger SSP by sponsoring a Ranger in Sumatra that works is the Leuser Range to safeguard the tigers and the forest they depend on.  In 2019, we signed a second, three-year commitment financially supporting a field ranger. Since 2015, we have had help with this conservation effort through the support of the Blind Tiger Brewery and Restaurant. We greatly appreciate that support.

We also provide in the field conservation efforts for the black footed ferret, Salt Creek tiger beetles, monarch butterflies, ornate box turtles and trumpeter swans, with Topeka Zoo staff and resources.  We also directly work in supporting the Red Panda Project, Red Siskin Project, International Elephant Fund, Giraffe Conservation Foundation, Asian Elephant Program and Asian ‘Elephant Fund. Putting the efforts of all AZA institutions together has resulted in many endangered species cared for and bred to manage a healthy population in human care, but also for rehabilitating injured animals, or breeding animals for released back into the wild.



The Association of Zoos and Aquariums launched the SAFE program to combine the power of zoo and aquarium visitors with the resources and expertise of AZA members, like us, to save animals from extinction in the wild. This program inspired by the efforts of SSP programs and used to build support for field conservation. Together we are saving vulnerable wildlife species from extinction and protecting them for future generations.  AZA currently has 14 mammal species, 6 bird species, 2 fish, 2 invertebrates and 5 reptiles in SAFE programs. These programs work to protect the animals in the wild, build recovery plans by working with AZA members and field-based partners.


The Topeka Zoo cares for many species on the SAFE list including African Lions, Asian Elephant, Black Footed Ferret, Giraffe, Orangutan to name a few. We are a member of the AZA Founders Circle, being one of the first accredited zoos financially supporting this program when it first started. We also support a number of SAFE programs.


The Topeka Zoo’s conservation committee voted unanimously in March 2021 to support the request by funding the full cost of $8,000 to put a second veterinarian in the field, working to save elephants. In February 2021, South Padre in Texas experienced the largest “Cold Stun” Sea Turtle rescue in history. On Valentine’s Day a winter storm hit that crippled the state.  Volunteers rushed to the Gulf coast to rescue Sea Turtles. When the temperatures plunged into the 20’s, Sea Turtles found themselves in big trouble. The Gulf waters dropped to below 50 degrees and the turtles became catatonic. They were found floating on the surface of the waters, unable to swim. The volunteers rescued 5,300 Sea Turtles. These Sea Turtles reflect about 35% of the total population affected. The Topeka Zoo contributed $5,000 towards that effort.


In addition, we support many conservation efforts through our financial contributions to organizations working with wild populations. In Africa, Giraffe Conservation Foundation, International elephant fund, 96 elephants (Wildlife conservation society). In Asia, the Asian Elephant Program, Asian Elephant Fund, Sumatran Tiger SSP where we support a Ranger in Leuser Range, and Turtle Survival Alliance. In South America, we support the Red Siskin Project and in the Himalayas and China, we support the Red Panda Project.


Fund raising for all these conservation efforts depends on community support and we greatly appreciate your support. When you add together the efforts of all the institutions in AZA, it becomes a real force for conservation that makes a big difference.


In the August 2020 edition of the AZA magazine, Connect, there were some numbers put to conservation efforts. Last year 99 AZA accredited facilities supported conservation for ungulates, or hoofed mammals spending over. $7.6 million on 347 projects.  The most common focal species were Rhinoceros ($2.3 million), Giraffes ($1.5 million) tapirs ($616 thousand}, Zebra ($524 thousand) and Okapis ($253 thousand). From 2017-2010, twenty AZA facilities spent $1.1million on 59 projects for North American freshwater turtle conservation. In the years of 2014-2016 investments of more than $825,000 were made to conservation efforts for Giraffe in Kenya, Namibia and Uganda. Between 2013-2015 AZA institutions spent $5.7 million on field conservation to benefit African elephants. There are many more, but you get the idea. This is the power of bringing people and institutions together and supporting conservation efforts.


Thank our supporters for all that you do to help us fund these conservation efforts. We should all be proud of the support and participation that we all do through the Topeka Zoo to support conservation.