Breeding programs designed to save critically endangered species are jeopardized by Brexit, with zoos warning they are prevented from transferring animals such as rhinos and giraffes due to red tape created by the departure from the UK from the EU.
Zoos’ small populations mean that it is essential that they exchange animals for breeding programs to keep the gene pool as large as possible.
Before 31 December 2020, an average year saw around 1,400 transfers between the UK and other EU countries. But in 2021 there were only 56, and so far this year there have been 84, according to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Biaza).
Nicky Needham, Biaza’s senior director for animal care and conservation, said there were more than 400 European Endangered Species Programs (EEPs), and UK zoos and aquariums were involved in the coordination of about 25%.
“These are safety net populations for endangered species,” she said. “Transfers of animals between zoos and aquariums are carefully planned to maintain a healthy genetic population.”
A program to save the critically endangered eastern black rhino has 87 animals, around 39 of which are in UK zoos. “Losing this would jeopardize the viability of the population and halt reintroductions into East Africa,” Needham said.
Transfers have dropped for two main reasons, Needham said. Since Brexit, a new EU regulation on animal health has come into force, having been adopted in 2016. This created new controls on the import of animals and plants into the EU, called sanitary and phytosanitary controls (SPS).
Many of these checks must be carried out at border checkpoints, which are usually set up by private companies. A few exist at EU airports, but so far there are none at French ports, creating an effective import ban on any large animals.
Last week the Observer revealed that farmers were considering taking the extraordinary step of building a border checkpoint in Calais and paying for it themselves, so that herders could export their purebred cattle, sheep and pigs.
The few animals that have been successfully transferred to European zoos have traveled by plane. One was Sammi, a margay or tiger cat, born at the Shaldon Wildlife Trust in Devon in late 2020. Margays are native to Central and South America, but illegal hunting means they are now listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.
There are 45 in Europe, with only six breeding pairs, so after the age of 10 months, when margays leave their mothers, Sammi had to go to Berlin Zoo to mate with a female margay from France.
“Before Brexit this wouldn’t have been a problem,” said Zak Showell, chief executive of Shaldon Wildlife Trust. “It would have taken a month or two to organize the care of the animal by a specialized transport company. It took six months.
“When we are dealing with small populations, being able to move animals around to establish new breeding pairs is extremely important. Some animals like the black rhino, if you don’t raise them, they stop riding. Having individuals alone or not in breeding situations hinders the ability to continue to breed these endangered species.
Some zoos have not been so lucky, with transfers failing or facing very long delays. Ramon the orangutan arrived in Munster in June 2022 from Blackpool Zoo, after a year of planning. His departure means Blackpool Zoo keepers can import another male to join the group and hope for more baby orangutans. Showell had to apply for separate animal health certificates for Sammi le margay.
“Every time an animal is moved, Defra has to negotiate with the other country the level of health screening and surveillance and whatever needs to be done to get that animal moved,” he said.
Some countries want new certificates for each species, Showell added. “I have just been told that I have to move tamarinds [New World monkeys] to Belgium. The health certificate for primates from the United Kingdom to Belgium does not exist. This made the whole process incredibly complicated and much more time consuming.
Costs have also increased, as specialized transport companies cannot drive their vehicles in Europe without permission. “We fly more animals, which costs more. And we are talking about small animals here. You cannot put a giraffe on a plane.