How Bristol Zoological Society is helping protect threatened species

Zoos play a vital and active role in wildlife conservation around the world, working collaboratively on breeding programmes for some of the world’s rarest species, or working to protect threatened habitats and animals in the wild.

Some species, such as Socorro doves, are now totally reliant on zoos to survive, which is why the success of captive breeding programmes is so important.

As we approach Endangered Species Day on Friday (May 21), we take a look at some of the most endangered species at Bristol Zoo Gardens and how Bristol Zoological Society is working to safeguard these species for the future. 


Bristol Zoo Gardens is home to seven ring-tailed lemurs and four crowned lemurs. Both species are classified as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. 

The Zoo is also home to five Lake Alaotra gentle lemurs and a pair of blue-eyed black lemurs, both of which are Critically Endangered species. Endangered, nocturnal lemurs, called aye ayes, live in the Zoo’s Twilight World, where they have successfully bred in recent years. In 2015 twin aye ayes were born at Bristol Zoo Gardens in a world first.

All lemur species are native to Madagascar, which is one of the world’s most important hotspots for biodiversity. But the lemurs’ forest habitat is being destroyed for slash and burn agriculture, charcoal production and mining. They are also threatened by illegal hunting.

Bristol Zoological Society is working to protect threatened lemurs in north-western Madagascar through the protection and restoration of their habitats. The Society has recently been awarded funding to continue its work protecting lemurs living in shade trees planted in cacao plantations.

In addition, the Bristol Zoological Society team is continuing to evaluate reforestation efforts inside Sahamalaza-Iles Radama National Park, its long-term field site. This year they hope to create a permanent tree nursery to grow saplings and help establish forested corridors for lemur species such as the blue-eyed black lemur and Sahamalaza sportive lemur.

The aim is to help bridge gaps and encourage lemurs to move between the forest fragments within the national park to develop dispersal opportunities and allow growth of lemur populations.

Find out more about our conservation project in Northern Madagascar.


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 appear to be thriving.

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

The team is also working on increasing capacity for amphibian monitoring by national park staff in nearby protected areas. This project 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.”

Bristol Zoo Gardens is home to a breeding group of more than 40 lemur leaf frogs, held in a purpose-built, climate-controlled ‘Amphipod’. The Zoo also manages the European conservation breeding programme for the species.

Find out more about our lemur leaf frog project. 

Western lowland gorillas

Bristol Zoo Gardens is home to a family group of eight western lowland

gorillas, including two youngsters – nine-month-old Hasani and five-month-old Juni. 

Western lowland gorillas are Critically Endangered and the Zoo is part of a European breeding programme for the species, to ensure there is a healthy population in human care.

Bristol Zoological Society recently launched a flagship conservation project in Equatorial Guinea to protect these, and other species, living in the Monte Alén National Park area.

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. Conservationists from Bristol Zoological Society are currently undertaking population surveys to gather more accurate estimates of gorilla abundance in this area.

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.

Find out more about our western lowland gorilla project.


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. 

Despite having an impressive 40mm body size and being the largest known wolf spider, very little is known about this species.

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

In the wild, the absence of any native terrestrial mammals means this spider is a top predator in its habitat. However, the small valley where the spider lives is being taken over by fast-growing grass which covers the surface of the soil and rocks, making it more difficult for the spiders to make burrows in the soil.

Bristol Zoo, and its expert invertebrate team, established the world's first captive breeding programme for this species in 2017, which since has seen the hatching of more than 750 spiderlings. They have also just published the first study on burrow substrate preference for the spiders which could help with ensuring sufficient preferred habitat is maintained in both captivity and the wild.

The European breeding programme for the spiders is coordinated by Bristol Zoological Society, combined with a conservation action plan to help save the species in the wild. The Zoo is also working closely with the Madeiran government which is leading on the habitat restoration aspects of this conservation programme.

Find out more about our Desertas wolf spider project.


African penguins

Bristol Zoo Gardens is home to a breeding colony of 38 African penguins in the Zoo’s ‘Seal & Penguin Coasts’ exhibit.

Sadly, there are now only a total of 18,000 African penguin breeding pairs left in the wild. This is a dramatic fall in numbers since 1900 when an estimated 2 million birds could be found. This 97.5% drop in population means these penguins are now classified as Endangered.  

The wild population of Endangered African penguins has been monitored by Bristol Zoological Society and partner organisations for 14 years in South Africa.The main causes of this decline are overfishing off the coast of South Africa and Namibia, and climate change.

Find out more about our African penguin project.


Bleeding heart doves

Bristol Zoo Gardens is home to five Luzon bleeding heart doves, a near threatened species which link to Bristol Zoological Society’s conservation project in the Western Visayan Islands of Negros and Panay in the Philippines.

There, Bristol Zoological Society works to protect species including the beautiful yet elusive Negros bleeding-heart dove, which is one of the rarest bird species in the world. 

It is feared there are fewer than 300 pairs of Negros bleeding-heart doves left in the wild. As such, this species has been categorised as Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

So-called for their bright, blood-red chest patch, these birds need high-quality, low elevation tropical forests to survive. The Philippines are considered to be one of the world’s ‘hottest’ biodiversity hotspots because of the amazing diversity of wildlife there. Yet only 6% of natural forest remains, with most lost due to agriculture.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic, Bristol Zoological Society has been able to continue supporting its team of rangers on the West Visayas island of Panay. The rangers carry out patrols to safeguard the unique biodiversity of this island, as well as deploying camera traps to survey threatened species such as the Negros bleeding-heart dove. 

Bristol Zoological Society has been working in the Philippines since 2000. By conserving this species and its habitat, a number of other rare and threatened species are also benefiting, including Visayan warty pigs.

Find out more about our Negros bleeding heart dove project.


Socorro doves

Next year marks 50 years since the Socorro dove was declared extinct in

the wild. These birds now exist solely in captivity, with around 200 held in zoos around the world.

Bristol Zoological Society keeps four individuals, one at Bristol Zoo Gardens and three at its sister attraction, Wild Place Project. 

The last known sighting of a Socorro dove in the wild was in 1972. Now there are just 26 birds in eight UK zoos. Coordinated conservation breeding of the birds by zoos such as Bristol Zoo Gardens and Wild Place Project 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.

Red panda

Bristol Zoo Gardens is home to a female red panda, called Shifumi, and

the Zoo is awaiting the arrival of a male in the coming months as part of the European conservation breeding programme for the species.

Native to the eastern Himalayas and south-western China, red pandas are classified as Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). 

The wild population is thought to be as low as 2,500 individuals, threatened by habitat loss and poaching. Fortunately, European zoos hold a captive population of around 340 red pandas. The red panda is one of a handful of species managed on a global scale to ensure zoo populations remain genetically healthy. 


Golden lion tamarins

A family group of six golden lion tamarins live on a lake island at the

heart of Bristol Zoo Gardens. Adults Missy and Dourado are a successful breeding pair and have produced a number of offspring, all contributing to the European conservation breeding programme for the species.

Golden lion tamarins are named after their miniature lion-like manes, and live in trees foraging on invertebrates and fruits. Brazil’s Atlantic coastal forests where they are found are disappearing due to logging, agriculture and industry which put their future at risk. 

However, thanks to zoos, golden lion tamarins have become one of the world’s major conservation success stories. They were down-listed from Critically Endangered to Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List as a result of 30 years of conservation efforts. 

About a third of the current wild population of this species are descendants of zoo-born individuals that were reintroduced into their native habitat in the early 1990s.


Pancake tortoises 

Reptile keepers at Bristol Zoo Gardens have successfully bred two

pancake tortoises recently, a huge boost for the captive breeding programme for this Critically Endangered species. 

The parents of these tortoises were among a number confiscated by UK customs officials 14 years ago.

Tim Skelton, curator of reptiles and amphibians at Bristol Zoo Gardens, oversees a studbook for all 400 pancake tortoises in zoos across Europe. They are vitally important to the future of the species as in the wild pancake tortoises are classified as Critically Endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.


Blue-spotted tree monitor lizards

There are around just 130 blue spotted tree monitor lizards recorded in

zoos across the world. Bristol Zoo Gardens is the only UK zoo to have successfully bred this lizard, with two hatching in 2019, four in 2020 and more due to hatch in the coming weeks.

The species was discovered in 2001 in tropical forests on the island of Batanta off the coast of Indonesia. Little is known about these animals in the wild -- their natural history is still largely a mystery. But by 2017 it was already listed as Endangered as many wild monitor lizards are taken for the international pet trade.

The species is part of a European breeding programme overseen by Bristol Zoo Gardens’ senior reptile keeper, Adam Davis. The breeding programme aims to ensure a healthy population in European zoos and to further our understanding of the species.

We are open! Pre-book your timed tickets now

Book now

We are open! Pre-book your timed tickets now