Breeding programs designed for conservation are critical endangered species are threatened by Brexit, with zoos warning that they cannot transport animals such as rhinos and giraffes because of red tape created by the UK leaving the EU.

The animal health regulation was adopted in 2016 before the EU referendum, but came into force in April 2021. There were no reports that the UK disagreed with the regulation.

The small population of zoos means that it is essential that they replace animals for breeding programs to keep the gene pool as wide as possible.

By 31 December 2020, there were around 1,400 transfers between the UK and other EU countries on average per year. But there were only 56 in 2021 and 84 this year, according to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Biaza).

Nicky Needham, Biaza’s senior manager of animal care and conservation, said there are more than 400 European Endangered Species Programs (EEPs) and UK zoos and aquariums are involved in coordinating around 25%.

“These are protected populations for endangered species,” she said. “Transplants of animals between zoos and aquariums are carefully planned to maintain a healthy genetic population.”

One conservation program for the eastern black rhino, a critically endangered species, has 87 animals, of which around 39 are in UK zoos. “Losing this would jeopardize the viability of the population and stop reintroductions in East Africa,” Needham said.

Twin golden lion tamarins, born at Bristol Zoo, cling to their parents. Photo: Ben Birchall / Pennsylvania

Transfers fell for two main reasons, Needham said. Since Brexitafter the agreement in 2016, the new EU animal health regulation entered into force. This created new controls on animal and plant imports into the EU, known as sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks.

Many of these checks must be carried out at border checkpoints, which are usually set up by private companies. There are a few at EU airports, but none at French ports yet, creating an effective ban on the import of any large animals.

Last week The observer revealed that farmers are considering building a border checkpoint at Calais and paying for it themselves so that farmers can export their breeding stock, sheep and pigs.

The few animals that were transferred successfully they flew to European zoos by plane. One of them was Sammy, a margay or tiger cat born at Shaldon Wildlife Trust in Devon in late 2020. Margai are indigenous to Central and South America, but illegal hunting means they are listed as endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

A Sumatran tiger named Dash has been recruited to Chester Zoo from Fota Wildlife Park in Ireland to help protect its endangered species.
A Sumatran tiger named Dash has been recruited to Chester Zoo from Fota Wildlife Park in Ireland to help protect its endangered species. Photo: Chester Zoo/Pennsylvania

There are 45 in Europe, with only six breeding pairs, so after 10 months of age, when margas leave their mothers, Sammy had to travel to Berlin Zoo to mate with a female marga from France.

“Before Brexit this wouldn’t have been a problem,” said Zac Showell, chief executive of the Shaldon Wildlife Trust. “It would take a month or two to arrange for the animal to be picked up by a specialist transport company. It took six months.

“When we’re dealing with small populations, being able to move animals around to create new breeding pairs is incredibly important. Some animals, like the black rhinoceros, if you don’t breed them, they stop cycling. The presence of individuals on their own or not in breeding situations hinders the ability to continue breeding these endangered species.’

Some zoos were not so lucky: transfers did not take place or faced 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 may import another male to join the group and hope for more baby orangutans. Shovel had to apply for separate animal health certificates for the Sami margai.

“Every time an animal is moved, Defra has to negotiate with the other country what level of medical testing and monitoring and everything else needs to be done for that animal to move,” he said.

Some countries want new certifications for each species, Showell added. “I was just told that some tamarins need to be transported [New World monkeys] to Belgium. There is no health certificate for primates from the UK to Belgium. It made the whole process incredibly complicated and a lot more time-consuming.”

Costs have also risen because specialist transport companies cannot drive their vehicles in Europe without a permit. “We transport more animals on planes, which is more expensive. And we are talking about small animals here. You can’t put a giraffe on a plane.”

A Defra spokesman said: “This shows the real damage of the bureaucratic approach that the EU has chosen for animal and plant health. We are ready to continue negotiations on this issue where reasonable pragmatic compromises can lead to improvements for all.

“In the meantime, we are working closely with the Animal and Plant Health Agency and the British and Irish Zoos and Aquariums Association to identify priority export shipments where there are welfare concerns or implications for breeding programmes.

“All requests for export health certificates for zoo animal exports have been successfully tracked.”

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