Zoo Based Conservation – What have the Romans, er Zoos, done for Us, I mean Conservation?

Zoos have existed in one form or another for many years. Originally they were nothing more than menageries, keeping animals in captivity for the amusement and amazement of the public. Over the years that public has become increasingly more discerning and is gradually deciding that caging animals for amusement is no longer acceptable. This has spelt trouble for the zoos of the world that have seen a steady drop in attendances.

Conservation has become quite the buzz word and zoos have leapt on this bandwagon as an opportunity to restore their credentials and bolster flagging attendances. In reality, do zoos have much to offer conservation or is it all just lip service to get the punters through the gates and fill the coffers?

Captive breeding for release to the wild is often touted by zoos as one of their main reasons for existence. However, literature from Animal Aid in the UK (http://www.animalaid.org.uk) appears to paint a different picture. They claim that only 5% of species in UK zoos are endangered, less than 1% of the endangered species held in UK zoos have been reintroduced to the wild and only 2% of the world’s 6000-plus threatened or endangered species are registered in zoo breeding programmes.

Captive breeding for return to the wild is an incredibly time consuming, protracted and expensive process but it has yielded positive results for some species such as the golden lion tamarin, red wolf, Andean condor, Przewalski horse, whooping crane and perhaps the most well publicised of all, the black-footed ferret. The total ferret population dwindled to 18 individuals before six zoos were able to successfully breed them in captivity. Since 1986 over 7100 kits have been born. Reintroduction began in 1991 and there are now estimated to be approximately 1000 ferrets living in the wild (See http://blackfootedferret.org for more information). Unfortunately this is another example of the high attrition rate associated with translocation programs, as mentioned in the previous post. Ferrets, at least, are relatively prolific breeders.

As mentioned above many species have no captive breeding program and for many of those that do the programs have been of minimal or no benefit. There are no more wild helmeted honeyeaters now than there were when their captive breeding program started, some 20 years ago, and there are fewer wild orange-bellied parrots than when their program began over 15 years ago. And these, like the ferrets, are small animals with short generation times. If they have been unable to achieve success it is delusional to suggest that zoos can play any meaningful role in the conservation of “charismatic megavertebrates” such as elephants and rhinos. With their incredibly long generation times, slow breeding and huge demands for space zoos will never be able to “save” these species and they only burble on about their conservation to justify their continued existence in captivity. It is obvious that zoos feel their presence is really required to drag the public through the gates. Any hope for long term survival for these and all species must come from in situ conservation programs, of which the African elephant is a successful example. A possible population of three to five million had been reduced by as much as 80% by the 1980s mostly due to poaching and the ivory trade. A ban on ivory coupled with innovative solutions employed by local people to try and live sustainably with these massive creatures has seen the elephant populations of eastern and southern Africa increase by a rate of 4.5% per annum since the mid-1990s (Blanc et al 2005). More details can be found in Tammy Matson’s excellent book, “Elephant Dance” and on her website http://tammiematson.com. Zoos do not feature but they will not give up their elephant populations for fear of falling attendances.

Apart from the fact that zoos exist to make money and entertain, despite what their glossy literature and websites might pronounce, they are hamstrung by the fact that they are captive institutions selecting animals that do well in captivity. The wildly unpredictable individual that mopes around its cage, plucks its own feathers or smashes itself against the glass on a daily basis is not a good display animal but possibly well suited to life in the wild. Unfortunately this is not the individual that will yield generations of progeny. It is the docile animal that adjusts well to captive conditions that will produce most of the next generation. However, these individuals are not nearly as well suited to life in the wild, which may go some way to explaining why release programs experience such high mortality rates. Studies of silver foxes have shown that in just a few generations of selecting for docility, very tame foxes are produced. This is much more effective than hand rearing animals, which tend to be mentally maladjusted and, rather than being tame, often end up as aggressive and dangerous to their human caregivers.

How irresponsible then is it for zoos to deliberately hand rear animals in order to pander to a public that wants nothing more than to pat and cuddle a presumed wild animal? As well as producing a completely maladjusted individual the public become conditioned to believing that this is how wild animals behave. Who hasn’t heard horror stories of a misguided parent smearing honey on their kids’ face so they can take cute photos of a wild bear licking it off? This usually results in the bear licking the kids’ face off instead. Or the people who are mauled each year because they decide to commune with the lions or reach through the bars to pat the wolves? These are wild animals that will only survive in the long term if we accept their true value as vital members of the ecosystem, not as cute cuddly playthings put on this planet for our amusement.

Despite zoos’ best intentions animal welfare will always be less than optimal. Because the visiting public want to see animals, and lots of them, exhibits are often small and designed to show off their inmates, restricting an animal’s ability to hide, migrate, forage or form effective social groups leading to well publicised stereotypic behaviours. Nutrition suffers also with zoos unable to replicate natural diets, leading to a range of deficiencies and a high rate of obesity. Apparently the feeding of carcases to carnivores is also too much for a public accustomed to meat arriving in sealed plastic containers, leading to problems with dental hygiene. Some zoos are attempting to address this by educating the public about the importance of feeding whole animals to carnivores.

Despite the negatives zoos can make positive contributions to conservation. Many zoos have excellent education and outreach programs, which focus on conservation of habitat and the threats that many wild species face each day along with measures that can be taken to mitigate them. They are also centres of excellence containing many people with skills in natural history, husbandry and medicine who can be utilised to provide support for in situ conservation programs. If zoos are really serious about captive breeding they need to focus on those species with the greatest likelihood of success. These will likely be smaller species that can be maintained in large enough numbers to minimise inbreeding depression. Each species should also be tied to an in situ conservation program to ensure that the original threatening processes are minimised or eliminated and the animals they choose for release are as wild as possible. An animal preserved in a zoo is of no use to anyone. Its purpose can only be realised when it fills its niche within its ecosystem. Unfortunately while money and attendances are the main drivers there will always be conflict between the conservation and entertainment roles that zoos have. Perhaps the conservation component should be farmed out to dedicated breeding facilities, which are either government or privately funded, to avoid this dichotomy? These places already exist: the Lubee Bat Foundation (http://www.batconservancy.org) and White Oak Plantation (http://www.wocenter.org) are both located in Florida. Neither is open to the public, so the animals can be contained within enclosures that have their best interests in mind. The Durrell Wildlife Park in Jersey is an example of a zoo that combines the best of both worlds, being accessible to the public while maintaining a much higher proportion of endangered species than most zoos (http://www.durrell.org/Wildlife-park). Of course private facilities are also subject to the whims of their owners, an example being Howletts Wild Animal Park in the UK where the owner saw a need to jump into the gorilla enclosure on a regular basis (http://www.aspinallfoundation.org/howletts).

Zoos are not going to go away but if they are to become true conservation organisations they need to develop many more endangered species breeding programs that are directly linked to in situ conservation activities. Where funds are limited in situ programs need to be given priority. If non endangered species are maintained they must be used to educate people about the threats they face and what can be done to assist their plight. And the wildness of the animals needs to be maintained and emphasised at all times. Walking animals on leads, hand raising, fondling or anything else that fosters an image of wildlife as cute, cuddly and domestic needs to be avoided at all costs. We are all equal partners in our ecosystem and only by taking a holistic approach will we be able to mitigate extinctions and move sustainably into the future.

Dr. F. Bunny


Blanc, J.J., R.F.W. Barnes, G.C. Craig, I. Douglas-Hamilton, H.T. Dublin, J.A. Hart, and C.R. Thouless. 2005. Changes in elephant numbers in major savannah populations in eastern and southern Africa. Pachyderm 38:19-28.


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