Looking at the role that Zoos have to play in conservation
When I tell people that I’m studying Zoology I usually get one of two responses;
“Cool! Are you training to be a Zookeeper?”
“Oh I’m not sure about Zoos, those poor animals stuck in there! They should be out in the wild where they belong.”
First of all, I must inform these people that most graduates of Zoology never set foot in a zoo except to bring their kids there on a Sunday afternoon. I am about as qualified to be a Zookeeper as Patrick Prendergast, but if you want someone to help you with allometric scaling equations… Anyone?
As for the second person well, I’m writing this in the hope that even if it doesn’t change their opinion of zoos, it at least makes them think about the subject without blindly going into a tirade on how *insert animal* would be better off in the wild.
Often the grievances people have with Zoos are purely due to a lack of understanding of how a specific animal lives in the wild. More than once, I have been at the Tiger enclosure in Dublin Zoo and an onlooker beside me will shake their head and say something along the lines of ‘Poor thing, so bored it just sleeps all day.’ Tigers naturally sleep for around 16 hours a day – that tiger is living the dream! Many Zoos are trying to enhance the daily lives of their animals by using techniques of animal enrichment and should be given credit for doing so.
That aside, I’m here to talk about the positive aspects of Zoos! Apart from the important role that Zoos play in educating the public about the natural world, they also play an integral role in the conservation of rare species.
Some species would not exist today had it not been for the intervention of Zoos.
Conservation is one of the most popular topics in the media today, and is usually seen as the protection of a valuable resource – such as an endangered animal. The purpose of a Zoo is to educate the public on nature, to entertain and most importantly, to conserve wildlife.
We have entered a new epoch, ‘The Anthropocene’, as evidence mounts that humans and their use of land has transformed ecosystems the world over. It is no longer possible to deny that humans are altering the way ecosystems work – whether it is through pollution, converting land over for human-use or exhausting natural resources. These human caused alterations lead to animals losing their natural habitats, damaging invasive alien species being introduced and a general loss of life due to factors such as hunting and pollutants. Simply put, we are currently the primary cause of extinction in animals and so it is our responsibility to try and conserve what remains.
So what are we doing about it?
Ex-situ conservation is the preservation of biological components outside of their natural habitats and this is where zoos come in.
Zoos as we know them came about in the 1920s and didn’t even try to resemble the animal’s natural habitats. Their purpose was purely entertainment, with our own Dublin Zoo offering people Elephant rides and Tea parties with Chimpanzees. Animals were caught in the wild and brought in to zoos to be put on display with little regard for their welfare.
However, Zoos have come a long way since then it terms of regulations and efforts to make the enclosures closer resemble natural surroundings. The EU brought in the ‘Zoos Directive’ in 1999, which calls on Member States to licence and inspect zoos. WAZA is the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and acts as a regulatory body for zoos all over the world.
Much of the animals in Western Zoos nowadays have been born in zoos and are part of ex-situ breeding programs. It is now much more difficult to capture an animal in the wild and bring them to a Zoo, you must obtain a CITES permit.
Zoos have a key part to play in breeding programmes of critically endangered animals as can be seen from the following examples.
The Black footed-ferret uses prairie dog burrows for shelter, which contributed massively to its decline as prairie dogs were targeted for poisoning due to their pest status. This coupled with their extreme susceptibility to canine distemper resulted in a population of 10 black footed ferrets by 1985. They were successfully bred in captivity in 1987, and the first individuals were reintroduced to the wild in 1991. Multiple zoos worked together on this captive breeding programme, including Toronto and Phoenix Zoo. From being classified as ‘extinct in the wild’ in 1990 to now having a wild population of over 1,200 ferrets, this is regarded as one of the most successful captive breeding stories.
These tamarins are New World monkeys, with their natural habitat being the south east of Brazil. Their numbers have dropped largely due to habitat fragmentation as a result of deforestation. By the 1980s , there were an estimated 100-200 individuals left in the wild. In 1984 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoological Park set up a reintroduction programme from 140 zoos worldwide. Today there are over 1000 tamarins in Brazil, mostly in Biological Reserves, and this number is expected to rise to 2000 by 2025.
These are just two examples of Zoos helping to bring animals back from the brink, there are many others such as the California Condor,Przewalski’s horse and the Red Wolf.
A benefit of Zoos that I haven’t yet talked about is the unique opportunity they offered to learn about animals before amazingly visual TV shows such as Planet Earth. This opportunity inspired many people to go on and choose a career in animal welfare or conservation – I know that many of my fellow Zoologists would credit Zoo visits as a child with fostering their love for nature.
Yes, I agree that there are Zoos out there that are not adequate to keep animals in and that more stringent regulations should be put in place that do not allow for animals to be kept in poor conditions.
And yes, I agree that animals should be in the wild but when their habitats have been destroyed or hugely fragmented, they sometimes do not have the option of a ‘natural habitat’ to go back to. In the success stories that I mentioned above, the only option to save the species was ex-situ conservation as in-situ conservation was no longer viable.
Personally, I think that Zoos should be for the sole purpose of conservation and education. Ideally the only animals in zoos should be the ones that truly need to be there. However, this is not the case and I don’t think it will be for quite some time as, given the choice, the public prefer to pay to see animals such as Meerkats rather than a Hooded Vulture.
I am not trying to say that Zoos are the perfect solution – many could benefit from some alterations, but in the current struggle to protect and preserve biodiversity, they most certainly have a part to play.
Phew, got through that without one mention of Harambe.
[xi] IUCN red list
[xiv] Kleiman, D.G. and Rylands, A. B., Editors. 2002. Lion Tamarins: Biology and Conservation. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, DC