Helping to protect endangered species around the world

To mark Endangered Species Day today we look at some of the key species that Bristol Zoological Society is working to protect, both in the wild and through its captive breeding programmes closer to home.

Endangered Species Day is an opportunity for people of all ages to learn about the importance of protecting Endangered species and everyday actions they can take to help protect them.

Many animal species are now totally reliant on zoos to survive, such as the Socorro dove which is extinct in the wild and now only 158 are recorded as existing in captivity. Others, such as the Lord Howe Island stick insect, are on the very brink of extinction in the wild. This is why the success of captive breeding programmes is so important. Bristol Zoological Society is a leader in zoo-based wildlife conservation and has been instrumental in working to protect many species under threat in the wild.

Here we look at a few such species:

1. Blue-eyed black lemurs

The blue-eyed black lemur from the Sahamalaza Peninsula of northwest Madagascar is considered the most charming of the lemur species, the males being jet-black and the females golden-orange, with both sexes having striking turquoise eyes.

We are home to a pair of blue-eyed black lemurs. The species is Critically Endangered in the wild due to hunting and habitat loss. It was listed as one of the world’s 25 most Endangered primates between 2008 and 2014, and numbers left in the wild are unknown.

Bristol Zoological Society is working to safeguard this species in a number of ways. As well as undertaking research both in Madagascar and in Bristol, the Society, along with like-minded organisations, has implemented development programmes to improve the livelihoods of rural poor Malagasy communities and contributes to maintaining a population of the species in human care. These actions have helped to secure the future of blue-eyed black lemurs in Madagascar, and, while still heavily conservation-dependent, the species was removed from the list of the world’s most endangered primates in 2014.

2. Lemur leaf frogs

The lemur leaf frog is a small, charismatic frog species, native to Central America.

The bright yellow-green frogs are Critically Endangered and their numbers in the wild have fallen by 80 per cent over the past 15 years due to a fungal disease, known as chytrid fungus, which has attacked amphibians across the world.

Lemur leaf frogs are now known to occur naturally only in a single site in Costa Rica, on the edge of the Veragua Rainforest Reserve in Limón province. This suggests that these tiny frogs have either undergone a significant range contraction or occur more sparsely than previously recorded. However, they have been introduced to new sites in the region, where they do seem to be thriving.

The chytrid fungus is widespread in Costa Rica and represents perhaps the greatest threat to amphibian persistence. Chytrid infection is shown to be an increased threat to tropical amphibians at higher elevations, where chytrid thrives in the cooler temperatures. We are trying to determine how much of a threat this fungus is for lemur leaf frogs and other species that share their forest habitat.

Bristol Zoological Society is working with a number of organisations on this project to determine the population size of these distinctive frogs and to discover more precisely where they are living.

The study has won praise from naturalist and broadcaster Sir David Attenborough, who said: “I wholeheartedly support the campaign to save the lemur leaf frog. It is, after all, one of the world’s most unusual and rarest amphibians – and it is in real trouble.”

We are home to a breeding group of lemur leaf frogs, held in a sterile, climate-controlled ‘Amphipod’. We also manages the European captive breeding programme for the species.

3. Kordofan giraffe

As one of the world’s most beautiful and majestic animals, giraffe are instantly recognisable and loved the world over.

But this striking creature is quietly slipping towards extinction. Kordofan giraffe are one of nine giraffe subspecies and, despite being one of the most populous giraffe in zoos, the situation facing them in the wild is challenging. As such, the conservation of Kordofan giraffe is becoming a race against time.

It is estimated that as few as 2,000 individual Kordofan giraffe may be left in Africa, out of a total giraffe population of about 80,000. Poaching, bushmeat trade and habitat loss are the main threats to their future in the wild.

Bristol Zoological Society leads a vital conservation project for the species, which focuses on protecting one of the few remaining populations of Kordofan giraffe left in the wild, in Bénoué National Park, in the North Region of Cameroon.

A team of conservationists from Bristol Zoological Society have been working to determine how many giraffe remain in the Bénoué National Park. Drone technology has enabled eco-guards at the national park to search larger areas in order to establish giraffe population numbers and locations. This year, efforts are continuing with the use of motion-activated camera traps. Wild Place Project, our sister site located in Easter Compton (South Gloucestershire), is home to two male reticulated giraffe – Tom and Dayo.

4. Western lowland gorillas

Bristol Zoological Society recently launched a new flagship conservation project in Equatorial Guinea to protect one of Africa’s most threatened great ape species, western lowland gorillas.

The collaborative approach between the zoo’s conservation team and the University of the West of England is seeing the creation of a research base in Monte Alén National Park, where conservationists from the zoo will focus their efforts on protecting western lowland gorillas.

The exact number of western lowland gorillas in the wild is not known because they inhabit some of the densest and most remote rainforests in Africa. In 2005, it was estimated that around 2,000 individuals lived in the Monte Alén National Park, but current numbers are unknown.

The species is threatened with habitat loss from deforestation and the threat of bushmeat hunting. As a result, researchers estimate that gorilla numbers overall have declined by more than 60 per cent over the last 20 to 25 years.

Their dwindling numbers are reflected across five other African countries where western lowland gorillas are found: Angola, Cameroon, Central African Republic, Republic of the Congo and Gabon. Recent estimates are that as few as 360,000 remain across these countries.

We are home to a troop of seven western lowland gorillas and are actively involved in ensuring there is a strong population in human care.

5. Okapi

There are only 14 okapi in UK zoos, three of which are at Wild Place Project.

Bristol Zoological Society, which operates Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project, has a long and successful history of breeding okapi. In the 1960s Bristol Zoo Gardens was a founder member of the first collaborative breeding programme for okapi. The success of the breeding programme was applied to other species by zoos across Europe and was used as an example to help safeguard the future of threatened animals in human care.

Okapi are the only living relative of the giraffe and are classed as Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. They are endemic to the rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa where they are threatened by expansion of human settlement and forest degradation. A major current threat is also the presence of illegal armed groups in and around the key protected areas for the species.

Okapi were moved from here to Wild Place Project when it opened in 2013 and more than 40 calves have been born at both sites over the years.

6. White-clawed crayfish

The white-clawed crayfish is the UK’s only native freshwater crayfish and is a keystone species of our aquatic habitats. It is globally endangered throughout its range, both within mainland Europe and the UK.

Since the 1970s there has been more than a 70 per cent decline in numbers of this species in south west England due to habitat fragmentation, pollution and, most importantly, the introduction of the non-native invasive signal crayfish. This invasive species not only predates our native species but carries crayfish plague, a disease which is lethal to white-clawed crayfish.

A dedicated team of keepers is breeding white-clawed crayfish in a hatchery at Bristol Zoo Gardens. It is the only known white-clawed crayfish hatchery in the UK. Once hatched, the native species conservation team is responsible for reintroducing them into safe ark sites across the south west. In 2018, Zoo conservationists released 177 crayfish back into the wild.

7. Socorro doves

Socorro doves are extinct in the Wild. Bristol Zoological Society keeps two pairs, one right here and one at Wild Place. There are only 158 Socorro doves recorded in captivity in the world.

The last known sighting of a Socorro dove in the wild was in 1972. Now there are just 22 birds in eight UK zoos. Coordinated conservation breeding of the birds by zoos such as Bristol Zoo and Wild Place has prevented the total extinction of the species.

Socorro doves were native to the island of Socorro, 600 miles off the western coast of Mexico. They died out after falling prey to a rising number of feral cats in the area. In addition, overgrazing by sheep destroyed much of their forest floor habitat and the birds were hunted by humans for food.

8. Desertas wolf spiders

The Desertas wolf spider is a Critically Endangered species, only found in one valley on one of the Desertas Islands, near Madeira, Portugal. Despite having an impressive 40mm body size and being the largest known species of wolf spider, very little is known about this species.

Our successful breeding programme for these spiders has seen the creation of nine new captive populations set up at other institutions from spiders reared at the Zoo. 

In the wild, the absence of any native terrestrial mammals means this spider is a top predator in its habitat. Although its major prey consists of other invertebrates, such as beetles, woodlice and millipedes, adults have also been seen predating on juvenile lizards.

The small valley where the spider lives is covered by a fast growing grass, Phalaris spp. The colonization of this grass in the Vale da Castanheira was hidden for some years due to the presence of rabbits that grazed and controlled the spread of the plant. With the eradication of rabbits from the valley in 1996, Phalaris lost its main predator and now proliferates. This grass appears to not only displace many native plants, but also many of the native animals. It covers the surface of the soil and rocks, making the microhabitats below the rocks harder to access for the spiders.

Our expert invertebrate team were the pioneers for the world's first captive breeding programme for this species in 2017, which since has seen the hatching of over 600 spiderlings. Now a European breeding programme for the species is being coordinated by Bristol Zoological Society, combined with a conservation action plan to help save the species in the wild.

9. African penguins

Our Seal and Penguin Coasts exhibit is one of the most popular attractions in the Zoo. It links directly with one of the Society’s flagship conservation projects, which works to protect African penguin colonies in the wild.

Between 2001 and 2013 alone, the global population of African penguins fell by 70 per cent, leaving approximately 18,000 – 22,000 breeding pairs in the wild. The main causes of this decline are overfishing off the coast of South Africa and Namibia, and climate change. African penguins are now classified as Endangered. 

Bristol Zoological Society’s African penguin conservation project consists of three main areas. The first is to work with a local rehabilitation centre, SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), to rescue, rear and release abandoned penguin chicks.

The second element is to participate in a long-term monitoring programme of wild African penguins at a key breeding colony on Robben Island. Finally, the project aims to analyse the movement and ecology of penguins at all life stages, to better understand how they choose and use breeding colonies. A dedicated team track penguins to understand how they are affected by threats such as overfishing and climate change, allowing Bristol Zoological Society to provide crucial data to the South African government. These data can be used to determine the best size and location for future Marine Protected Areas.

Another major area the Society is working on is to better understand how immature African penguins choose breeding sites – something that is currently very poorly understood.

10. Visayan warty pig

We are also home to three Visayan warty pigs. The pigs are classified as Critically Endangered and their population is highly fragmented and declining. The Visayan warty pig exclusively occurs on the Visayan Islands in the Philippines. There, it is restricted to the islands of Panay and Negros, and possibly Masbate.

They live in densely forested areas. They used to occur from sea level up to high elevations but have lost over 95 per cent of their former habitats and today only occur mostly above 800m. The species is threatened by habitat loss due to logging and agriculture. They are also persecuted by farmers as crop-raiders and hunted for their meat, despite being protected by Philippine law. Unfortunately enforcement of this law is often poor.

Bristol Zoological Society’s Philippines conservation project team are currently surveying the forests of Panay to determine the distribution of warty pigs in the wild using motion-activated camera traps. We are also supporting patrols by forest wardens to alleviate the pressure of illegal activities on the wildlife.


Bristol Zoological Society works in 10 countries around the world to protect wildlife and people. The charity could not do it without the support of partners and local communities, as well as businesses and individuals that donate their time and money. Saving wildlife together has never been more important. 

There are many ways in which people can help us continue to protect species in danger, including one-off donations, sponsoring animal houses and animals at Wild Place Project and Bristol Zoo Gardens, and by making regular donations by joining the Society’s Friends Scheme.

To find out more about how you could get involved in supporting any of the above projects, and play your part in protecting these Endangered species, contact the Society’s development team on development@bzsociety.org.uk or click here to donate directly.

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