I'm hoping to revive this thread as I think it's an important discussion to have. I spent many years studying the international herp trade for all sorts of groups with all manner of ideological rationale behind their interest. I've had many discussions with people about the value of herpetoculturists to conservation, and I still have some issues with the idea that beyond contributions to our knowledge of captive husbandry and breeding, which are extremely important, don't get me wrong, that hobbyist and commercial herpetoculture has any value to conservation. First, there are very few people who breed extensively in a way that preserves the genetic diversity of wild type animals - invariably species get into the trade and people start breeding for color, albinism, size, etc. It's doubtful that any of these animals are fit genetically, epidemiologically or behaviorally to be released into secured habitats later on. In other words, if you're not breeding rare species in a carefully tracked program similar to the Species Survival Plan standards used in AAZPA institutions, you're probably doing next to nothing. Is it better to have these species around in some form, even if they're extinct in the wild? Absolutely. But let's not fool ourselves that we're doing anything particularly important if we lose track of important details like breeding programs that preserve maximum genetic diversity so as to preserve, as close to possible, the diversity and characteristics of wild populations.
The contribution I see hobbyists making is working out husbandry and proper care techniques that are passed on to zoos and researchers. Hobbyists animals will very rarely be reintroduced to the wild. Some of the tracking of lines that hobbyists are doing seems to be not much more than folly.
one of the most important contributions, in my opinion, is the educational component:
captive amphibians are accessible and visible to people who would otherwise never see them nor be aware of their existence and fascinating life histories. I go into the local schools to show them slides of newts, how to set up tanks etc. This will foster interest and understanding of amphibians and just might inspire some future conservationists.
At any rate, people won't care to preserve something they have never seen or know nothing about.
Working in the zoo field as a keeper and as a life long herp hobbyist I think gives me a good perspective on this. The issues with private breeding I agree is that effectively the populations are meaningless for reintroduction. Not only are people breeding them for traits that probably either outright lower survival rates or at least lower genetic diversity they are also just breeding whatever animals they happen to get their hands on. The advantages of the private field I think is the fact that you often have hundreds of people each trying their own ideas out on how to care for the animals which sometimes is not so good for the animals but does mean that risky things get tried that might never be tried at a zoo. After a while, especially with help from communities such as this one, proper methods of care are worked out by lots of trial and error from lots of different people. The SSP programs at zoos are great for some species, i.e. Foosa or Mountain Bongos or some other fuzzy creature, but many herps get ignored or put on the back burner. The articles mention of the Corucia zebrata I thought was interesting because while an SSP does exist for the species its not doing a whole lot for the animals in zoos. Little to no breeding is being done with that species because every zoo that wants them has them so there is little to no demand in the zoo world and very few institutions will give up time, space and money for a herp that isn't going to go on display. With as long lived as the species is I wouldn't be shocked to find out that 10 years from now most of the Corucia are dying of old age and because no one has been breeding them there won't be any to replace them. This is just one instance but I assure you there are many many other herp examples in the zoo field that get little to no attention. Fortunately the exception seems to be how zoos are stepping up to the plate for endangered amphibians. Many zoos now have whole amphibian conservation departments and represent the only hope for species like Atelopus zeteki which are now extinct in the wild.
People forget that zoos are businesses which generally don't make huge profits and are therefore forced to concentrate on display animals that pull visitors through the gates. They also have to balance the depressing image of a pacing polar bear with some good news conservation stories to get the public on side. Whilst I'm not knocking their efforts I don't believe ex-situ conservation in zoos is going to be the saviour of the majority of threatened species. They just don't have the space, time or most importantly money. In general zoos take little interest in Caudata. After spending a lot of money building and heating the reptile house temperate amphibians which hide all day are an unattractive proposition.
If I'm keeping my cynic hat on for a while I'd go as far as to say that hobbyist led conservation groups sometimes appear to be nothing more than an opportunity for a select group of keepers to obtain and exchange rare animals under the rouse that they are somehow doing something valuable. It's obviously much cooler to say "I'm working with x species as part of a conservation initiative" rather than "I have some pet frogs in a tank" . Sadly the latter is the reality.
I realise this is not a balanced view and I'm sure there are many individual examples of successful ex-situ conservation projects. It's no substitute for true insitu habitat protection and restoration in my opinion.
I agree that there´s virtually no conservation value in the fact of having animals in captivity. Not compared to what really matters, which is what Mark, pointed out, habitat conservation. There are specific instances where ex-situ conservation has proven to be important, but mostly these have nothing to do with our hobby. You can count in one hand the number of times animals in private collections have been used for conservation efforts and this is further dwarfed by the impact of our hobby on nature (released/scaped invasive species, introduction of patogens, exploitation of wild populations...)
I used to share into the idea that we could "work on a species", but i don´t anymore. Like Molch, i see value in our hobby (other than the pleassure and delight it provides to us), in the potential for education and the promotion of contact and curiosity about nature. This is not negligible, specially in a world where such a large proportion (about 50% i think) of humanity lives dramatically isolated from nature in hurban environments. There is also the value of understanding the captive requirements and the opportunity for new insight that comes from close contact from species that would otherwise be almost completely ignored. However, that doesn´t amount to much.
I´m sceptic about the results of conservation efforts in zoos, but it may be that i just don´t know enough and i´m generally disenchanted with zoos anyway.
There is one aspect of the hobby that has potential for conservation, which is the breeding of species to reduce or ideally eliminate the mass collection of species in the wild. Of course, the problem is created by the hobby itself in the first place, but we could learn to manage our hobby in a way that has a much, much smaller impact on the wild. Personally i consider it an obligation, although i´m sure many would disagree.
I feel the delusion that by breeding some animals in captivity we will contribute directly to their conservation in the wild has some pernicious effects. It´s an attractive prospect but it´s not realistic. I´ve seen people focus on the breeding which apparently is what constitutes "working with" a species, and loose awareness of very important issues which actually matter, like animal welfare and sustainability.
There is a tiny potential for conservation with animals in the hobby, very tiny indeed, and unlikely to result in much, and we´ve reduced it even further by conducting the management of our captive animals in very unhealthy and uninteligent ways.
Anyway, my point is that conservation and our hobby are largely two separate matters. Our only potentials for impact are education and minimizing the impact our own hobby has.
I have to agree with this. Many hobbyists consider themselves to be conservationists because they love nature. Stand back and see what happens when that rare possibly endangered salamander becomes available.
It is also interesting when hobbyists contribute to research and later find out that research might restrict the hobby. The two quickly part ways.