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The role of the zoos - just a day out or an important role in conservation?

They are no longer a “Noah’s Ark”. But they still have an important role…

In August, the Guardian newspaper in the UK published an article about the London Zoo – specifically dealing with their gorilla breeding initiative, but also perhaps asking questions about the wider role of zoos in conservation. I believe the article was superficial in terms of the consideration of what modern zoos are about, and I do think they have a role to play in conservation, but there could be significant improvement.


Zoos essentially began as menageries – a place where people could go and stare at exotic animals often kept in what we would now think of as appalling conditions. It was as much of a “day out” for ancient Romans to stare at giraffes and lions as it was for those in London (a bit later) to go and have a look at the animal displays at the Tower. There is no doubt that the “day out” attitude persisted for a long time – the menageries became businesses and sold tickets. Zoos have become seemingly popular – few major cities in the UK, the EU, and the USA for example can apparently live without one, and the biggest zoos are big businesses with hundreds of employees, whether directly or through the concessionary restaurants and shops.

In the early days, zoos went out and collected their animals from the wild, and what breeding was done was not necessarily cognizant of the particular genetic lineage of the animal in question – a tiger was a tiger whether it came from Sumatra, India, Vietnam, etc. A north African lion was equivalent to one from the south and even one from India. Later, zoos became much more careful and kept detailed studbooks of their breeding animals as substantial genetic differences were often revealed among source populations. In other words, zoos began to recognize their role in the conservation of biodiversity in the true sense of the word. This needs to be continued.


For a while, however, zoos then began to adopt the attitude that they were “Noah’s Arks” -  the last hope for endangered and critically endangered species in the wild – when things got better, reintroductions from zoo populations could restore species extinct in the wild. Such reintroductions have indeed happened, but success has been largely limited to herbivores that don’t mind whether they are eating grass in London or Outer Mongolia (as long as there are no predators). For example, the Arabian Oryx has been restored to natural areas after their extinction in the wild, and recently a few northern white rhinos (extinct in the wild and perhaps all of eight animals left in the world) were taken to Kenya to hopefully breed better than they did in a zoo setting.

But breeding is one of the points made in the Guardian article about gorillas. The article pointed out that in August, a male was moved from the Dublin Zoo to Regent’s Park (London) to attempt to encourage a bit more activity. It was stated that over the past 22 years in London Zoo, only one youngster was born. The Bristol Zoo managed to have a baby gorilla born by using artificial (IVF) techniques. Ian Redmond, a confessed “gorillaholic” (an assistant to Dian Fossey) questions the inclusion of gorillas in zoo collections. Redmond says, truthfully, that if gorillas fare so poorly in terms of captive reproduction, why keep them there? Why spend £5.3 million at the London Zoo in terms of a “Gorilla Kingdom” exhibit when that amount of finance could be better spent on maintaining wild populations? Why foster the breeding of a zoo population of gorillas that has no hope of survival in the wild if ever reintroduced?


Fair points. Neither the large primates, the tigers, the lions, the polar bears etc in zoos can be reintroduced into the wild without staged programmes that might take some generations of the animals involved. But. Zoos do have a very important part to play in terms of conservation, and need to consider a wider role.

First, reproduction. Zoos, through their research, have established important reproductive knowledge of the species in their collection, whether it is a lion, a lemur, or a leopard frog. This could not have been gathered from wild relatives. Many larger zoos maintain at least sperm banks of many of the species in their care. Zoo reproductive research is important and ongoing, and actually deserves much more funding than currently allocated by their boards of directors.

Second, veterinary knowledge. Zoo veterinarians are probably the most knowledgeable people in the world in terms of the anatomy, physiology, dietary requirements, etc of the exotic species under their care. They work better at the forefront of testing new anaesthetic drugs, dosages, and possible reversals to anaesthesia than anyone else, and share this information everywhere. Zoo veterinarians have a much larger role to play in ex-situ conservation than in which they are currently engaged. 

Third, geneticists. Zoos are highly involved in maintaining genetic biodiversity, and incorporate much information from field studies as well as information from captive individuals in their care and at other zoos worldwide. Through zoological associations and individual zoo connections, a growing network of information is being shared worldwide about careful breeding of animals in zoo collections. However, zoos could do more in terms of coordinating collection of genetic information from wild populations rather than relying on academic institutions to provide such data.

Fourth, education. The large zoos, summed up over the world, receive more visitors per year than people who will visit Africa as wildlife tourists in many decades. If African tourism is to be considered a major component of wildlife conservation on the continent, then the zoos have equal multiples of more opportunity. Zoos certainly have education departments and education officers, but it could be said that zoos should do more in terms of education. Education should be seen as a major responsibility of zoos, and education departments should have much higher budgets and requirements in terms of staff qualifications. Zoos could take much more of a leadership role, for example, in advocacy of species survival plans in the wild in addition to their global zoo population representatives. The marketing strategy of many zoos still revolves around the “day out”. How many people come away from a zoo or safari park with any information about the realities and fragilities of life for the wild relatives of the animals they have seen?  They might have looked at a little map of where the animals occur in the wild. The biggest public entertainment value is feeding time.  Along these lines, the zoo information centre should be front and centre at the entrance, and not a side diversion between the aardvarks and zebra exhibits.

Fifth, ex-situ conservation. Zoos do play an important role in terms of spending parts of their overall budget on conservation projects, but again could do more. Zoos could take on much more of a political role, for example, in promoting relevant conservation projects and in leveraging the undoubted political clout of their memberships to address a variety of issues. It would be refreshing for UK zoos to assume a united stance and a political commitment with their membership to encourage the UK government to pass resolutions on a number of issues ranging from a cessation of lion trophy hunting, to a careful appraisal of UK government “development” projects in Africa to ensure that biodiversity is not negatively affected, to opposing plans in Tanzania to build a highway across the Serengeti that will effectively kill off the last major African migration. Zoos need to realize they have constituencies, and work with them not only to fund a few conservation projects but also to have a voice in matters that affect global conservation. 


Overall, zoos need to take a greater global view and better utilize their opportunities in terms of potential individual and collective voices. They have done much already, but a broader role is not misplaced for organizations that basically still trade in the public fascination for exotic animals.   



Tags: zoos,

Categories: Zoos

Posted by Pieter Kat at 14:03

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