Brexit threatening endangered species as red tape hits zoo breeding programmes

Breeding programmes designed to save critically endangered species are being jeopardised by Brexit, with zoos warning they are being prevented from transferring animals such as rhinos and giraffes by red tape created by the UK’s departure from the EU.

The animal health regulation was passed in 2016 before the EU referendum, but came into force in April 2021. There have been no reports that the UK dissented from the regulation.

Zoos’ small populations mean it is essential that they swap animals for breeding programmes to keep the gene pool as broad as possible.

Before 31 December 2020, an average year saw about 1,400 transfers between the UK and other EU countries. But in 2021 there were just 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 manager for animal care and conservation, said there were more than 400 European Endangered Species Programmes (EEPs), and UK zoos and aquariums were involved in coordinating about 25%.

“These are safety net populations for threatened species,” she said. “Animal transfers between zoos and aquariums are carefully planned to maintain a healthy genetic population.”

One programme to save the Eastern black rhinoceros, a critically endangered species, has 87 animals, of which about 39 are at UK zoos. “Losing this would jeopardise the viability of the population and stop reintroductions to east Africa,” Needham said.

Twin golden lion tamarins, which were born at Bristol Zoo Gardens, cling to their parents. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Transfers have plunged for two main reasons, Needham said. Since Brexit, a new EU Animal Health Regulation has come into force, after being agreed in 2016. That created new controls on the import of animals and plants into the EU, known as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks.

Many of those checks need to be carried out at border control posts, which are usually set up by private enterprises. A few exist at airports in the EU, but so far there are none at French ports, creating an effective ban on the import of any large animal.

Last week the Observer revealed that farmers were considering taking the extraordinary step of building a border control post in Calais and paying for it themselves, so that breeders could export their pedigree cattle, sheep and pigs.

The few animals that have been transferred successfully to European zoos have travelled in aeroplanes. One was Sammi, a margay or tiger cat, born at Shaldon Wildlife Trust in Devon in late 2020. Margays are native to central and south America, but illegal hunting mean they are now classified as threatened by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

A Sumatran tiger named Dash was recruited by Chester Zoo from Fota Wildlife Park in Ireland to help protect his critically endangered species.
A Sumatran tiger named Dash was recruited by Chester Zoo from Fota Wildlife Park in Ireland to help protect his critically endangered species. Photograph: Chester Zoo/PA

There are 45 in Europe, with only six breeding pairs, so after the age of 10 months, when margays leave their mothers, Sammi was scheduled to go to Berlin Zoo to pair with a female margay from France.

“Prior to Brexit this would not have been a problem,” said Zak Showell, Shaldon Wildlife Trust’s chief executive. “It would have taken a month or two to organise for the animal to get collected by a specialist transport company. This took six months.

“When we’re dealing with small populations, being able to move animals to set up new breeding pairs is incredibly important. Certain animals like the black rhino, if you don’t breed them then they stop cycling. Having individuals on their own or not in breeding situations hampers the ability to continue breeding these endangered species.”

Some zoos have not been so lucky, with transfers falling through 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’s zookeepers 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 the margay.

“Every time an animal is moved, Defra has to negotiate with the other country on what level of health screening and surveillance and everything else needs to be done for this animal to move,” he said.

Some countries want new certificates for each species, Showell added. “I’ve just been told I need to move some tamarins [New World monkeys] to Belgium. The health certificate for primates from the UK to Belgium does not exist. It’s made the whole process incredibly complicated and so much more time-intensive.”

Costs have also increased, because specialist transport companies are not able to drive their vehicles in Europe without approval. “We’re moving more animals via planes, which is more expensive. And we’re talking small animals here. You can’t fit a giraffe on a plane.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “This shows the real harm the bureaucratic approach the EU has chosen to take on animal and plant health. We’re ready to continue to negotiate on this where sensible pragmatic compromises can lead to improvements for everyone.

“Meanwhile we are working closely with the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums to identify priority exports where there are welfare concerns or implications to breeding programs.

“All of the requests for export health certificates for the exports of zoo animals have been successfully fast tracked.”

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