The latest wildlife headlines say current rates of species decline have us on track to lose two-thirds of our populations by 2020. News like this makes everyone sit up and pay attention. It is clear we have a battle on our hands and the world’s flora and fauna are relying on us to be their allies. In less than five years, before anything significant changes in your life, maybe before you have children, certainly before they are old enough to go out and explore the world on their own – monkeys, lions and pangolins could be extinct in the wild and elephants could have been poached to the very limits of sustainable numbers. Sobering thoughts.
So, what does this mean for zoos? Will people still want to visit extinct wild animals in a zoo environment in fifty years’ time? Will the iconic status of the African lion or elephant hold on, when its wild status vanishes and only captive populations remain? Who knows. One thing’s for sure though, if enough is not done now, to protect and conserve the habitats and animals most at risk, zoos will not be worrying about answering questions like this. The world we live in will be devoid of much of the animal life we have come to know and love. In a resulting sad, depleted existence, its likely no-one will care to visit anything. None of us want to see that happen, so we need zoos to step up and do more.
An increasing number of establishments are giving significant funding to wildlife protection, and WAZA has asked institutions to commit at least 3% of their operating budgets to conservation efforts. Keen to stress they are all about conservation, zoos should easily be able to fulfil this request. We hope they do, and we hope more and more money, time and skill begins to be spent on supporting conservation efforts in the field, raising and re-releasing viable animals back into the wild and re-wilding and preserving vital habitats. Along with this, how about zoos do some other things too. How about more zoos bridging that knowledge gap between the captive animals people come to see and the plight of their wild relatives, and how about zoos evolve and become more sustainable consumers – setting a better example to us all.
Reports tell us people visiting zoos and aquariums do increase their understanding of biodiversity. A visit to the orangutan enclosure hopefully means people go home knowing where the tropical rainforests are and that these great apes live exclusively in these lush habitats. But will people go home knowing and understanding the connection between orangutans and palm oil? Will they glean enough insight to then check their peanut butter tub next breakfast time, to see if their selected brand uses sustainable oil, oil not responsible for mass deforestation and the unprecedented threat to the orangutan’s survival. This is what all zoos can do. The gap between orangutans and peanut butter is wide, but by investing in education projects and campaigns that really do increase people’s understanding of issues that are happening right now, significant change might just happen. From orangutans and palm oil to plastic cotton buds and sea birds, there are simple, tangible changes we can all learn more about in order to help in the fight for wildlife survival.
Zoos have a ready-made target audience. People pay to visit because they want to see their native and non-native species up close. Zoo visitors like animals, they want to know more about them, want their children to learn too and ultimately, they want to do what they can to prevent these animals from disappearing. All zoos could remove plastic bags and disposable coffee cups from their shops and cafes. They could choose to serve only sustainable fish in their restaurants and could offer more plant-based food options. The gifts they sell could come from local and international community projects, with ethically sourced materials, and more zoos could grow their own fruits and vegetables to provide food for their animals in a self-sufficient way.
Zoos and aquariums can come together in their efforts and make those efforts radical. In the wake of these recent headlines more zoos need to be thinking about how to be better consumers and how to effectively campaign and educate people, delivering a uniform message on an international level. This kind of action is vital, vital if zoos want to do their bit to preserve what they say they are all about – wildlife and conservation. You can call this action some kind of zoo utopia. You can call it what you like. If paradise has to be zoos’ collective objective and motivation in the fight to protect our wildlife, then that’s what it should be.
N.B. Good accredited zoos do have education campaigns that focus on pertinent issues. Check whats going on at your local zoo and if they don’t have anything, why not suggest something?