AZA Gives Conservation Award Top Honor to Houston Zoo, Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens, and SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment Collaboration

Giant armadillo declared one of five indicator species for the creation of protected areas thanks to the collaboration’s Giant Armadillo Conservation Program (GACP)

HOUSTON, TX.; NAPLES, Fla.; ORLANDO, Fla. (November 17, 2021) – The Giant Armadillo Conservation Program (GACP), a collaboration between the Houston Zoo, Naples Zoo, and SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment (NYSE: SEAS), received the 2021 William G. Conway International Conservation Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).  The award recognizes exceptional efforts by AZA Institution, Related Facility, or Conservation Partner members toward habitat preservation, species restoration, and support of biodiversity in the wild. The giant armadillo is found across South America and has been deemed vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.   Giant armadillos were declared one of five indicator species for the creation of protected areas in 2014 in the State of Mato Grosso do Sul, Brazil, thanks to the GACP efforts.

“With species disappearing at alarming and increasing rates, conservation leadership has never mattered more. The commitment of these well-respected zoological organizations – Houston Zoo, Naples Zoo, and SeaWorld – is increasing understanding and protection of the giant armadillo. Their collective efforts to save the giant armadillo from extinction is reason for hope, for this species and many others,” said Dan Ashe, President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

The AZA is the accrediting body for the top zoos and aquariums in the United States and 12 other countries.  All three of the GACP institutions are accredited by the AZA.

The giant armadillo is an engendered species and the largest armadillo species in the world, with a wide distribution throughout Southern American habitats. However, they are always naturally rare throughout their range, often experiencing local extinctions such as in Uruguay and elsewhere.  While habitat destruction, poisoning, and hunting pose major threats to remaining populations, much about this species remains unknown.

“Without the support of AZA zoos, we would never have been able to start or continue the giant armadillo Conservation Program,” said Dr. Arnaud Desbiez, head of the Giant Armadillo Conservation Project. “Even though there are no giant armadillos in AZA collections, zoos have worked together to fund, create new field techniques, build the capacity of the team, and create such a strong partnership that our collective effort now spans FOUR biomes SIX conservation initiatives.”

GACP Identifies the Giant Armadillo as an Ecosystem Engineer as Abandoned Burrows Provide Shelter for 70 Species of Wildlife

In 2011, GACP established the first long-term ecological study of giant armadillos in Brazil.  It identified the species as ecosystem engineers whose empty burrows become a shelter from predators and temperature extremes for over 70 species of wildlife from lizards and snakes to ocelots, peccaries, and anteaters, to tamandua and puma.  GACP is pioneering methodologies to investigate giant armadillo ecology and biology, promoting conservation awareness through environmental education and outreach, and has become one of the leading capacity-building projects for aspiring conservationists with over 85 Brazilian biologists and veterinarians trained since its inception. Its goal continues to be to use field data to inform conservation outreach and planning and make giant armadillos a flagship species for biodiversity conservation to safeguard remaining native habitats and wildlife. AZA institutions have been instrumental every step of the way for the past 11 years.

Lee Ehmke, President & CEO of Houston Zoo stated, “Our partnership with the Giant Armadillo Conservation Program inspired us to open South America’s Pantanal in 2020. The lush habitat highlights animals we are protecting in the wild, including giant anteaters, tapirs, and more, with conservation partners including GACP. With this new exhibit, the Zoo offers visitors the chance to see these animals in an immersive and engaging trail and strengthens our zoo’s conservation commitment to this unique and threatened ecosystem.”

“Wildlife doesn’t stop at the borders of protected areas, so neither can conservation,” explains Tim Tetzlaff, Naples Zoo’s Director of Conservation. “Large rural landowners can support tremendous amounts of wildlife on their private lands. Understanding their perspective and truly collaborating with these key stakeholders is critical for wildlife species to remain abundant enough to fill their place in the ecosystem, including giant armadillos’ role in aiding dozens of other rare species. Naples Zoo greatly values the GACP’s efforts in listening to diverse audiences to address the needs of people, animals, and the land – a pattern we follow in regional work with Florida panthers.”

Dr. Chris Dold, Chief Zoological Officer for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment added, “The conservation of animal species is central to our purpose and extends to every corner of the world. Through funding by the Busch Gardens Conservation Fund, we have supplied funds, staffing, and field support since the projects beginning and are honored to play a part in preserving this elusive, but critical, species.”

Education programs at all three institutions highlight the project to guests in both programming and interpretative messaging.


About Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo connects communities with animals, inspiring action to save wildlife. Established in 1922, today the Zoo is a leading conservation and education nonprofit organization providing care to thousands of animals. All while remaining a cherished destination for fun, family, and inspiration for all of Houston’s diverse communities. The Houston Zoo is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation.

About Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens
Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens is a nonprofit charitable organization caring for rare species both in and outside the wild through conservation and education programs that create a better future for both people and wildlife. With the support of visitors, members, and donors, Naples Zoo has invested over 2.4 million dollars saving plants and animals in the wild since 2014. The Zoo funds the annual salaries of 10 field staff in Brazil, Uganda, and Madagascar including biologists, researchers, village games scouts, and two wildlife veterinarians including the head veterinarian of the Giant Armadillo Conservation Program. With a firm belief that what is best for people and wildlife is the same thing in the long run, Naples Zoo strives to support conservation efforts that reflect this mutual benefit.


About SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. (NYSE: SEAS) is a leading theme park and entertainment company providing experiences that matter, and inspiring guests to protect animals and the wild wonders of our world. The Company is one of the world’s foremost zoological organizations and a global leader in animal welfare, training, husbandry, and veterinary care. The Company collectively cares for what it believes is one of the largest zoological collections in the world and has helped lead advances in the care of animals. The Company also rescues and rehabilitates marine and terrestrial animals that are ill, injured, orphaned, or abandoned, with the goal of returning them to the wild. The SeaWorld® rescue team has helped more than 39,000 animals in need over the Company’s history. SeaWorld Entertainment, Inc. owns or licenses a portfolio of recognized brands including SeaWorld®, Busch Gardens®, Aquatica®, Sesame Place® and Sea Rescue®. Over its more than 60-year history, the Company has built a diversified portfolio of 12 destination and regional theme parks that are grouped in key markets across the United States, many of which showcase its one-of-a-kind zoological collection. The Company’s theme parks feature a diverse array of rides, shows and other attractions with broad demographic appeal which deliver memorable experiences and a strong value proposition for its guests.



Media Contacts:


Houston Zoo

Jackie Wallace

[email protected]


Naples Zoo

Tim Tetzlaff

[email protected]


SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment

Lisa Cradit

[email protected]

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