Saving Species With SAFE

November 15, 2023

Have you ever heard the acronym “SAFE” in the context of conservation and zoo programs? If not, take note. You’ll most likely see more about it going forward. SAFE stands for Saving Animals From Extinction, and it’s something you should know about.


Fans of zoos and aquariums know that, for decades, members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums have worked toward cooperatively managing species in zoos through programs called Species Survival Plans®.

However, over time, SSPs developed a “one size fits all” framework that wasn’t working for all species. Some were supporting healthy, strong populations, while others were struggling with small population sizes, lower reproduction, or less genetic diversity than they might need for long-term health. In addition, many SSPs also had conservation components, which sometimes stretched them thin as they tried to manage both zoo populations and wild conservation efforts.

So, in 2015, AZA—under the leadership of Lincoln Park Zoo CEO Emeritus Kevin J. Bell, who also served as the Chair of the AZA Board of Directors for a term starting in 2009—established SAFE to specifically leverage the collective expertise and reach of AZA-accredited institutions to help save species and their habitats in the wild, creating AZA-level conservation programs that can complement the work of SSPs to maintain sustainable zoo and aquarium populations.

Bell also spearheaded the creation of the AZA Population Management Center here at Lincoln Park Zoo; the PMC supports all the SSP programs and any SAFE programs that use zoo/aquarium populations in their conservation activities (like reintroductions), and will continue to do so in the future.

Today, there are 39 SAFE programs for various species and almost 80 percent of AZA’s members are involved with a SAFE initiative in some way. AZA institutions have invested more than $1.8 billion in field conservation efforts that benefit animals and their habitats.

Strategic SAFE

AZA zoos and aquariums have already achieved so much when it comes to rescuing species—just look at the recovery efforts for species like red wolves, black-footed ferrets, sea turtles, and others. The idea of SAFE is to continue this work—to save endangered species and protect wildlife with the already-cultivated resources and audiences of AZA institutions.

In expanding SAFE, AZA separated out the management of zoo populations from conservation efforts and put limited resources where they were needed most. So you can rest assured that AZA institutions continue to collaborate to make sure animal wellbeing is a priority for every single species within AZA zoos, whether they are an SSP species, a SAFE species, or no longer meet the criteria for either.

Now, every SSP has been reassessed to make sure it is set up support sustainable populations—and SAFE programs are being set up to specifically save species that can use additional conservation resources and outside partners to keep them from becoming extinct. By making these changes, both SSPs and SAFE programs are becoming more focused and strategic.

Lincoln Park Zoo and SAFE

Lincoln Park Zoo is currently engaged with 89 SSPs—and a growing number of the current SAFEs. The 13 SAFEs we work with today focus on the following animals:

  • Chimpanzees
  • North American songbirds
  • African painted dogs
  • North American monarch butterflies
  • African vultures
  • American red wolves
  • American turtles
  • Sharks and rays
  • Gorillas
  • African penguins
  • Black rhinoceroses
  • Giraffes
  • African Lions

On an operational level, what this means is that zoo staff have various roles in these SAFEs, as members of the steering committee, officers, or liaisons. And, in cases where we hold these species (which is most of them), we make and participate in SAFE initiatives and recommendations.

A SAFE Future

By 2027, AZA hopes to have all members participating in SAFE programs, with at least 50 species incorporated into the program. AZA member facilities will continue conservation work in places around the world as part of these SAFEs. To date, SAFEs ­­have helped on-the-ground efforts to rehabilitate trafficked radiated tortoises, studied giraffe skin disease in Tanzania, improved the prospects for coral populations by successfully spawning them in aquariums, and much more. AZA institutions, including Lincoln Park Zoo, have participated in field conservation efforts all around the globe, like the Goualougo Triangle Ape Project.

Lincoln Park Zoo, which was one of the first institutions accredited by AZA back in 1975, remains committed to collaboration and conservation with both SSPs and SAFE programs. Many staff members are deeply involved in AZA activities from running committees and leading workshops to presenting papers. And in addition to the supporting science taking place daily at the zoo’s Population Management Center, the Alexander Center for Applied Population Biology works with wildlife reintroduction programs to create the best management strategies.

In other words, we’re planning to grow and evolve with the SSPs and SAFE. Watch this space for more!


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