Are zoos necessary in conservation?

I am completely committed to a career in conservation.  I’m also a real champion for the welfare of animals.  This puts me right in the middle of the zoo debate, quite literally on a number of occasions.  In an ideal world animal welfare would not be compromised under any circumstance.  We do not live in an ideal world.  Ex-situ conservation is vital for us to conserve endangered species.   

The historical menagerie

Historically, zoos took the form of private menageries; aristocratic figures collected and housed exotic animals for the purpose of entertainment.  These menageries acted as status symbols that allowed the wealthy to display their power and aristocracy to exclusive members, largely owing to the fact that only the elite had the resources to source exotic animals.  At this time there was little concern for animal welfare, not to mention the lack of knowledge.  During the course of the 18th and 19th centuries menageries evolved from private collections to public zoological parks.  These institutions were seen as natural spaces for busy city dwellers to escape the stresses of urban life.  19th century zoos started to stress the importance of scientific research, yet they remained, primarily, sites of entertainment and inspiration for humans.

Zoos today

Today zoos position themselves as societies of conservation, whilst placing great emphasis on the education of their visitors.  In fact, not only have the majority of zoos evolved in practice but also in their title; the term ‘zoo’ is considered archaic, many parks have altered their name to include words such as ‘conservation’ and ‘wildlife park’. Furthermore, welfare standards have risen as a result of principles introduced by organisations such as EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria); standard guidelines exist for enclosure dimensions, feeding practices, enrichment, etc.

Modern day zoos are the most conventional method of ex-situ conservation.  Their captive populations are often crucial in protecting endangered species.  Whilst many oppose the idea of zoos, the harsh reality is that in-situ conservation could not exist without its counterpart (we’ll go into this debate a little later).

The public’s perception (or misconception)

The public tend to be divided in their attitudes towards zoos; amongst them are those who view them as inhumane and those who consider them a necessity.  People’s inherent desire to connect with nature however can lead to a cacophony of contradictory attitudes regarding the welfare of the animals, most likely attributed to a lack of knowledge.  Animal lovers visit zoos with the hope they will interact with the wildlife, and observe exciting, active displays of ‘natural’ behaviour (in reality many wild animals spend large amounts of their day resting).  Studies suggest that visitors consider active behaviour to be the result of good welfare, and form positive conclusions based on the aesthetic value of animal exhibits.

I’ve often had conversations with people about their recent visit to a zoo; their children loved the theme park style rides on offer, they were excited by the animal displays, and loved walking through enclosures to encounter the animals up close.  In conclusion, they consider this park to be great as the keepers appeared knowledgeable and the animals appeared ‘happy’, not to mention the entertainment on offer.  But does the zoo have an impact on conservation, were the welfare standards up to scratch, were the public educated on the species in the wild and issues they face, did they come away ready to get involved??

Whilst our hearts may be in the right place, there is evidence to suggest that visitors are not sufficiently educated in the issues at hand. 

The conservation parks and their visitors do settle on common ground in their attitude towards education though; both of whom consider this a top priority.  And they are not wrong.  Education is a huge component of conservation, and vital for the longevity and development of conservation. Studies suggest that visitors are more likely to learn when they encounter positive, personal experiences with the animals/keepers.  In light of this, and unfortunately, wildlife parks have become increasingly commercialised; along with play parks for children, they offer VIP experiences, animal encounters, and wildlife displays, all of which bring with them their own ethical ramifications.

The vicious cycle

A flowchart illustrating how zoos exist primarily for human entertainment

The pros and cons of ex-situ conservation  

The zoo argument is a real hot topic nowadays; animal activists consider any captive collection of wild animals inhumane and unacceptable, whereas conservationists are able to see the bigger picture.  Ex-situ conservation is paramount in our fight to protect our planets biodiversity, and unfortunately wildlife parks are an important component.

Many question why we can’t simply conserve species in their natural habitat?  And why are species so infrequently reintroduced?  The answer is a complex one, in fact there is no single answer.  But it must first be noted that there are projects all over the world working to conserve species in-situ.  However, they cannot work alone.  First and foremost, these projects require funds, and these funds are largely made up of wildlife park visitation fees.  Furthermore, many species are subject to such intense pressures, they cannot be preserved in the wild, or reintroduced until the local issues are resolved.  Issues such as impact from climate change, human conflict, and deforestation have to be resolved before wild populations can be restored/reintroduced.  What’s more, endangered populations that have become unstable (due to such low numbers (allee effect)) are sure to become extinct if they are not preserved in captivity.  In these cases ex-situ conservation is the only option.

We must remember that both methods exist hand in hand:  Ex-situ conservation should not be considered ‘second best’, but as complimentary to in-situ conservation.

Advantages: Limitations:
Preservation of species. Cost
Reservoir for endangered species. Captive population sizes (size is a serious limiting factor; captive institutions do not have the space to house appropriate numbers of most species.  Therefore there is a lack of genetic diversity).
Source of income for conservation. Adaptation (species may undergo genetic adaptation, rendering them unsuitable for release into the wild).
Education. Lack of natural enrichment.
Ethical issues.

Contributions to conservation

Associação Mico-Leao-Dourado and the Golden Lion Tamarin:  

In order to protect the critically endangered golden lion tamarin, the  Poço das Antas Biological Reserve was created in Rio de Janeiro.  During the 1970s and 1980s a research project was started to aid a reintroduction programme undertaken by Associacao Mico-Leao-Dourado, in conjunction with the Smithsonian National Zoological Park and Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.  The project has proved extremely successful; in 2003 the species’ status was changed to Endangered.  What’s more, over 12,000 ha of forest is now protected by federal law as a result of this reintroduction project.

Golden lion tamarin in it's natural habitat

Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Mountain Chicken:

Over the last 12 months the mountain chicken, endemic to the Caribbean islands of Dominica and Monsterrat, has reached perilously low numbers.  As a result of the recent arrival of the deadly disease – chytrid fungus – and the deforestation caused by Soufriere Hills volcano, Durrell decided to intervene.  13 frogs were rescued from Monsterrat in 1999 and a ‘safety-net’ population has since been bred. Research is still on-going and the hope is that, one day, this species will be reintroduced to Monsterrat.

Mountain Chicken

I am among the first to express my apathy towards zoos, particularly in the traditional sense.  In an ideal world I would support the move to abolish all zoos and I would direct my efforts into making this happen.  However, we as humans have driven our planet and its creatures to the brink, therefore ex-situ conservation is now an unavoidable method in the wider conservation strategy (that being said, there is still no excuse for poor welfare standards, and I wholly oppose exploitation in any form).

Other sources:

  • Hancocks, D. (2001) A different Nature: The paradoxical world of zoos and their uncertain future. University of California Press
  • Primack, R.B. (2014) Essentials of Conservation Biology.  Sixth Edition. Sinauer Associates, Inc
  • Powell, D.M and Bullock, E.V.W. (2014) Evaluation of factors affecting emotional responses in zoo visitors and the impact of emotion on conservation mindedness. Anthrozoos

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