Ark or park: the need to predict relative effectiveness of ex situ and in situ conservation before attempting captive breeding

Paul Dolman, Nigel Collar, Keith Scotland, Robert Burnside

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1. When species face extinction, captive breeding may be appropriate. However, captive breeding may be unsuccessful, while reducing motivation and resources for in situ conservation and impacting wild source populations. Despite such risks, decisions are generally taken without rigorous evaluation. We develop an individual-based, stochastic population model to evaluate the potential effectiveness of captive-breeding and release programmes, illustrated by the Critically Endangered Ardeotis nigriceps Vigors great Indian bustard.
2. The model was parameterized from a comprehensive review of captive breeding and wild demography of large bustards. To handle uncertainty in the standards of captive-breeding performance that may be achieved we explored four scenarios of programme quality: ‘full-range’ (parameters sampled across the observed range), ‘below-average’, ‘above-average’ and ‘best possible’ (performance observed in exemplary breeding programmes). Results are evaluated examining i) the probability of captive population extirpation within 50 years and ii) numbers of adult females subsequently established in the wild following release, compared to an alternative strategy of in situ conservation without attempting captive breeding.
3. Successful implementation of captive breeding, involving permanent retention of 20 breeding females and release of surplus juveniles, required collection of many wild eggs and consistent ‘best possible’ performance across all aspects of the programme. Under ‘full-range’ and ‘above-average’ scenarios captive population extirpation probabilities were 73–88% % and 23‒51%% respectively, depending on egg collection rates.
4. Although most (73‒92%) ‘best possible’ programmes supported releases, re-establishment of free-living adults also required effective in situ conservation. Incremental implementation of effective conservation measures over the initial 10 years resulted in more free-living adults within 35 years if eggs were left in the wild without attempting captive breeding.
5. Synthesis and applications. For the great Indian bustard Ardeotis nigriceps, rapid implementation of in situ conservation offers a better chance to avoid extinction than captive breeding. Demographic modelling should be used to examine whether captive breeding is likely to bring net benefits to conservation programmes.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)841–850
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Applied Ecology
Issue number4
Early online date5 Jun 2015
Publication statusPublished - Aug 2015


  • Ardeotis nigriceps
  • captive breeding
  • counterfactual
  • great Indian bustard
  • Noah’s Ark
  • reintroduction
  • reinforcement
  • re-establishment

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