The SSP began in 1981 as a cooperative population management and conservation program for selected species at North American zoos and aquariums. Each SSP carefully manages the breeding of a species in order to maintain a healthy and self-sustaining captive population that is both genetically diverse and demographically stable. Beyond this, SSPs include a variety of cooperative conservation activities, such as research, public education, reintroduction, and field projects. Currently, 87 SSPs covering 116 individual species are administered by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association.
A species must satisfy a number of criteria to be selected for an SSP. Most SSP species are endangered or threatened in the wild and have the interest of qualified professionals with time to dedicate toward their conservation. Also, SSP species are often "flagship species," well-known animals which arouse strong feelings in the public for their preservation and the protection of their habitat. Examples are the giant panda, Siberian tiger and lowland gorilla.
Each SSP has a qualified species coordinator who is responsible for managing its day-to-day activities. Management committees composed of various experts assist the coordinator with the conservation efforts for the particular species, including aspects of population management, research, education and reintroduction when feasible.
In addition, each institution holding an SSP animal has a representative who attends the relevant SSP meetings and coordinates the SSP activities at their institution. The overall program is administered by AZA's Conservation and Science Office in Bethesda, Maryland.
Nashville Zoo participates in a number of SSP programs with zoos worldwide. These programs were implemented to help threatened and endangered species. SSP programs that Nashville Zoo is involved in are below.