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Zoo director’s guide to ZIMS value for conservation

Jonathan Wilcken - ZIMS value
Jonathan Wilcken, Director of Auckland Zoo (Photo credit: LinkedIn profile)

A word on ZIMS value from our Trustee Chair

Jonathan Wilcken is the Director of Auckland Zoo and currently serves as Chair of the Board of Trustees for Species360.

How does Auckland Zoo use ZIMS on a day to day basis?
Better data means better decisions, and this is as true for daily animal management decisions as for anything else. In zoos, this is particularly important as we tend to be dealing with species that are relatively poorly known outside our zoos. Good zoo data from all around the world is critical for improving our understanding of what animals of all sorts of species need.

Auckland Zoo sign - ZIMS value
(Photo credit: Swiss-Belhotel

So every day, ZIMS records inform animal care decisions somewhere across the zoo: whether we need to change how much we’re feeding an animal, who to breed with who, when and at what age, what temperature we’re keeping them at, and so on.

ZIMS for Medical helps us pick up early signs of sickness, find out what drugs and treatments have worked best on a particular species, see whether any change (in behavior, weight, condition, etc.), is out of the ordinary. Medical treatment decisions benefit greatly from our vets being able to compare test results from our animals to pooled data from zoological institutions around the world, including normal values for a range of physiological attributes of a species, or drug treatment or anesthesia efficacy.

And being able to track animals from one zoo to the next, and trace parentage is critical in ensuring that we acquire and breed the genetically most appropriate animals.

Jonathan Wilcken - ZIMS value
Jonathan Wilcken, Director of Auckland Zoo (Photo credit: Localist

How has ZIMS helped with conservation work at the Auckland Zoo?
I don’t think we should underestimate the conservation value of ZIMS. Being able effectively to manage health and welfare is enormous conservation value on its own, often making additional conservation options available to us. For example, Auckland Zoo houses the world’s only known population of cobble skinks (a currently-undescribed species of Oligosoma). For all we know, these may be the last of their kind in the world, rescued from a flooding island. Their very survival depends on our ability to provide good husbandry for them and ZIMS data plays a key role in this.

Also managed with the help of ZIMS, we regularly breed and release animals of a range of threatened species such as blue duck, brown teal, wetapunga, kaka and orange-fronted parakeets.

Most dramatically, perhaps, ZIMS plays an important role in managing wild populations of among the world’s most critically endangered bird species. We use ZIMS pedigree management* to help New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) make decisions about the best way to organise and breed kakapo (a flightless nocturnal parrot of which there’s only ~160 left in the world) and takahe (flightless giant rail with ~250 remaining animals). DOC moves these animals in the wild around to create optimal breeding opportunities following detailed genetic analysis made possible by the pedigree data calculated and managed in ZIMS. This means that populations can be set up to retain the maximum genetic diversity for the future.

But really, I think the full conservation benefit of ZIMS data is only just emerging. And much of this value, in my view, will come from our increasing need to manage ‘wild’ populations to aid their survival. In such circumstances, zoo-like animal management techniques will become increasingly relevant, as will ZIMS’ database and data management functions. For example, Rotoroa Island is one of two wild sites that now exist as Species360 ‘institutions’, and we record data in ZIMS on all the managed (but free-living) wildlife on the island.

How easy is the system to use? Are there improvements or other data you’d like to see added to the system?
ZIMS is pretty intuitive to use. As an example, after only a week at the zoo and with no specific ZIMS training, our new keepers find themselves easily and usefully enter husbandry data on a daily basis.

In terms of improvements, well there’s always a wish-list, isn’t there…

But my main interest would be in tools to make even more use of the huge amount of data we already have. We’ve only scratched the surface of what such data can offer the research and conservation community. For example, I’d love to see us understand how to adapt ZIMS data to feed into models of how wild populations might fare into the future under different management scenarios. For many species, we know much more about them from zoos than from the wild.

*(Note: The ZIMS studbook function we use for kakapo and takahe is actually a satellite studbook programme which is being fully integrated into ZIMS.)

About Jonathan Wilcken, Director of Auckland Zoo

Jonathan has had broad experience in the management and work of zoological institutions. He has previously worked in animal management and education roles in zoos and museums in the UK and Australia. More recently, he held the post of Executive Director of the Australasian zoo association, representing zoos and aquariums across Australia and New Zealand.

Jonathan currently sits on the Advisory and Strategic committees of the IUCN/SSC Conservation Planning Specialist Group, on the Board of the Zoo and Aquarium Association (Australasia), and is the chair of the Board of Trustees for Species360.

(Auckland Zoo video: Watch Jonathan talk about how zoos have changed over the years to become places where wildlife conservation is at the heart of everything)

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