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ZIMS at Work: The One Plan Approach to Conservation with Cologne Zoo

Written by: Jo Seton, Contributing Editor.

This ZIMS at Work feature on Cologne Zoo is one of a series of stories about Species360 member institutions that record and share data to help improve animal welfare and inform species conservation.

From Germany to further afield, the Cologne Zoo uses ZIMS for a variety of purposes, from day-to-day record-keeping, to supporting the zoo’s in situ conservation efforts in the Philippines and other countries. Pictured here is the site where the zoo reintroduced Philippine crocodiles into their natural habitat. Credit: Rainier Manalo / CPPI.

The Cologne Zoo, the third oldest zoo in Germany and home to more than 850 species in total, is a noteworthy leader in research and species protection programs. Focused on breeding of endangered species – with more than 100 threatened species – the Cologne Zoo is a modern ark, providing genetically viable “assurance colonies” (reserve populations) and animals for release.

Prof. Thomas Ziegler, Cologne Zoo.

The Zoo also is a central figure in the collection and application of data used to improve the welfare of animals and to inform conservation of species. As a long-time member of the global Species360 community, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), Cologne Zoo uses the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) to record data on all of the animals in its care. Its legacy of animal records spans more than 45 years and includes insight into husbandry, animal welfare, medical support, studbooks, and more.

While data collection is a daily event for staff throughout the Zoo, its application of ZIMS goes far beyond the everyday, as we discovered when we talked to Professor Thomas Ziegler, Curator of the Zoo’s Aquarium and Coordinator of the Zoo’s Biodiversity and Nature Conservation Projects in Vietnam and Laos.

“We are very proud to care for threatened species, to keep and reproduce them as best we can,” says Ziegler, “and perhaps one day bring them back to nature. Whether in Cologne, as we have been doing for years for the European green toad, with its declining local populations, or in the tropics of Southeast Asia for endangered crocodile newts and the critically endangered Philippine crocodile.”

Philippine crocodiles at the Cologne Zoo. The young crocodiles here will at a later stage be released into the wild in the Philippines to support in situ conservation efforts for this critically endangered species. Credit: Cologne Zoo.

Conservation in the Field

These crocodiles are the Cologne Zoo’s best-known “ark” success, and their care and breeding records in ZIMS help to preserve and share essential knowledge about the species. With only around 100 of this endemic species left in the wild, the Zoo began coordinating the European studbook in 2012. In 2013, the Cologne Zoo’s team succeeded in breeding genetically pure Philippine crocodiles for the first time in Europe, which they were able to determine with genetic studies using ZIMS data. Hulky and Dodong, two five-year-old males hatched at the Zoo in 2015, and raised by their mother (and thus, perfectly socialized), were taken to the Philippines in December 2020 to be released into the wild. Further offspring, currently at Cologne Zoo’s terrarium section, and from a second natural breeding event, will also be released into the wild on behalf of Philippine authorities and crocodile conservationists to support the dwindling natural population. Studbook management of the ex situ population in Europe is carried out by Ziegler and Anna Rauhaus, section keeper in the Zoo’s Aquarium Terrarium division, using ZIMS for Studbooks.

This important work falls under the One Plan Approach of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which links in situ and ex situ conservation in concert with different kinds of  expertise. It’s a process which plays a substantial role in Cologne Zoo’s work. More than 100 species held in the Aquarium are either officially listed as threatened on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened Species or included in the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

“Many of the species held and bred in Cologne Zoo’s Aquarium have an IUCN One Plan Approach component, says Ziegler, meaning they are connected to in situ research or conservation projects in their home country, with a focus on Southeast Asia, and most recently, on Madagascar.

The Philippine crocodile enclosure inside Cologne Zoo’s Aquarium’s terrarium. Credit: Cologne Zoo.

Conservation-Based Research

ZIMS is also used for conservation-based research by the students in Ziegler’s classes at the Institute of Zoology of the University of Cologne, where he is an adjunct professor. “We teach more than 100 students every year in conservation, diversity and zoo biology (including ZIMS), and after having seen the role of zoos as conservation centres, many students are interested in writing their theses in our Cologne Zoo’s scientific working group to be published later in conservation journals.” He notes that while the pandemic inhibited student access to labs and the working group, “ZIMS analyses” saved the day, allowing students to complete their work from home offices. By “ZIMS analyses,” he’s referring to research in which ZIMS was the major resource for relevant data – on, for example, skinks and Malagasy freshwater fishes in zoos (Wahle, A, et al, 2021), (Leiss, L, et al, 2021). “And with our ZIMS analyses we in addition intend to provide manuals for improved animal collections in zoos … [for] ex situ conservation,” he adds, “so it was great chance to perform constructive work.” {For more information on sharing data and using ZIMS data for research, please click here.}

The pandemic was far from the first time that Zoo staff and students have used ZIMS for research. In 2016, Ziegler and Rauhaus published a review of monitor lizards in zoos. (Ziegler, T., Rauhaus, A. & I. Gill, 2016) This showed how many threatened taxa were already kept and bred; where there were the gaps to be filled; and where zoos might improve their collections, by, for example, exchanging unthreatened taxa for threatened ones. A year later, they published a similar analysis on crocodiles in zoos (Ziegler, T., Rauhaus, A. & F. Schmidt, 2017). A student’s thesis results were published in 2020 and 2021, highlighting the role of collections in European and North American zoos for global amphibian conservation (Jacken, A., Rödder, D. & T. Ziegler 2020, 2021). The most recent study, published in Nature Conservation, used ZIMS data to determine the representation of Vietnamese amphibians in zoos worldwide.

Ziegler notes that this student’s study demonstrated how much additional conservation work remains to be done by zoos. Among its alarming findings:

  • only around 7% of all extant amphibian species were kept in zoos
  • only 10.4% were kept in sufficient numbers in different collections
  • 10.1% were represented by a single specimen
  • only 4.3% of the amphibian species recommended for ex situ conservation were kept in zoos
  • 44.3% of the globally threatened amphibians in zoos were held by a single zoo only.

More student theses and publications in a similar vein have followed or are currently in process. On the importance of such research, Ziegler notes it can be used to optimize zoo collections to improve conservation. “They help to make the ‘modern ark’ more efficient and be better prepared,” he says, “for the day we have to help with restocking measures. Once a species is extinct in the wild, we have lost the race. But if there is a viable zoo population, we can use that for restocking measures.” Equally important, he adds, is that “in parallel, nature conservation in the wild is our ultimate goal, so that this ark has some land where it can dock later.”

For Ziegler and his Cologne Zoo colleagues, and students, ZIMS is a crucial tool as they continue to direct conservation measures. As we continue to improve and expand this tool, Species360 is pleased to be a part of this important work.

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