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Captive breeding remains a vital approach in the conservation of many species. In addition to building up numbers for reintroductions, captive breeding also provides an outlet for research, advocacy and medicine. For some species where habitat is not secure enough, captive breeding is the last chance to preserve a population long enough to keep open the option of reintroduction.

In New Zealand we don’t seem to make a lot of use of captive breeding options. This has long puzzled me. There is little in the way of genuinely secure habitat outside a few offshore islands. If we’d had a backup population of say, little-spotted kiwi or some of our weka species, the dramatic collapse in the population of these birds would have been far less serious.

I am leaning to the idea that the Wildlife Act is part of the problem. The Wildlife Act is a decades old piece of legislation. One of the motivations was the rediscovery of the takahe- a native rail previously thought extinct- in the late 1940s. The passage of the Act in 1953 had three basic aims. These were to protect some native animals, manage introduced animals, and kill pests.

Somewhat telling is that nowhere in the legislation are zoos or zoological parks mentioned at all. This is not suprising. The Act is old, and predates the current era where zoos have conservation missions, and where sustainable use is employed as a conservation tool. Nonetheless, because the Act effectively gave the Crown all property-rights in a select number of species, captive breeding of these animals is mediated via this Act. So we have an Act that has to be used by zoos and the like (e.g. Otorohonga Kiwi House, Rainbow Fairy Springs, Orana Park, the various city zoos) that doesn’t recognise zoos.

Compounding this is the uneven treatment of species. For instance, birds and reptiles are automatically given protected status unless specifically exempted. Insects and other arthropods only get protection if specifically listed.

In the absence of any legislated role or objectives for captive breeders, much of the policy-making is thus devolved onto the Crown’s authority. Currently this is the Department of Conservation.

This use of discretionary mechanims can lead to decision-making on the fly and a lack of consistency across species, or over time. For instance, restrictions have at times, been placed on the actual captive breeding of species. In some seasons, potential breeding opportunities have been forestalled by decisions out of DoC.

In policy terms this is not ideal. Having clearly set out legislation that recognises and supports the contribution captive breeding can play, is just good policy. The issue is about reducing the level of discretion to a point where policy-making is fair and transparent. Where too much discretionn is involved, breeding programmes are vulnerable to short-term, reactive interventions.