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The Conservation Mission of Zoos

GUEST BLOG Author: Nabila Aziz - Developer for the International Species Information System (the world's online wild animal database)
A wild horse drinking from a lake in its zoo enclosure, Image © B575 [CC BY-SA 3.0] Wikimedia Commons

The Conservation Mission of Zoos

Nabila comes from a background in biosciences and natural resource management and has worked on community-based resource mapping and conservation projects in the Himalayan regions of India and Nepal. She also worked as a business analyst with the International Species Information System (now called Species360), and was part of the team that developed standards on different animal and enclosure parameters. In this blog, Nabila considers the human fascination with animals – which starts very early in childhood – and the millions of people that visit zoos around the world each year to observe wildlife, as she explores the conservation mission of zoos.

History and Evolution of Zoos in a nutshell?

This fascination for observing wild animals in captivity goes way back in time. Evidence of private menageries owned by ancient Egyptian kings and aristocrats puts them as early as 2500 BCE. They were later transformed into public institutions in the 1700s. The late 18th and early 19th century witnessed the formation of zoological societies such as the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). The 1900s saw the emergence of the modern zoo concept. Since the 1980s, zoos developed coordinated breeding programmes that brought dozens of animals (for example the golden lion tamarin of Brazil), back from the brink of extinction. Along with this transformation of zoos over the past few centuries, there was a parallel evolution in the role of zoos and they went from being purely recreational to incorporating elements of research and conservation into their agenda.

Zoos and Conservation?

A study by Patricia et al., 2007 states that conservation and education are key elements in the mission statements of zoos. A survey conducted by The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), revealed that the general public rate conservation and education as the most important roles of zoos (Fraser and Stickler 2008). Most zoos mention conservation and education in their mission statements suggesting that these are rather important aspects of zoo culture.

So how do zoos help conservation? Zoos primarily deal with three aspects of conservation – practice, advocacy and research. Conservation practice entails captive breeding, species reintroduction programs, Species survival plans and the use of zoo revenue for conservation programs in the wild. Conservation advocacy includes public engagement, promoting awareness, advocating stewardship, and fundraising events and schemes – a good example of which is the ‘Adopt an Animal’ scheme at most modern zoos. Moreover, conservation research is conducted on wildlife biology, population dynamics, animal behaviour, health and welfare and there are also publications generated by zoos on animal care and captivity.

Zoos benefit conservation not only through direct efforts such as captive breeding, wild survival training and reintroduction, but also in indirect ways.

Nearly fifty percent of world’s people live in cities disconnected from nature and in such cities, zoos and aquariums have a great potential to win huge support for wildlife preservation. In order to instil conservation sense in the general public, it is important to educate them about animals, their behaviour, habitat, population changes, and why they need to be conserved.

In 2011, Conde et al. conducted a study aimed at estimating the total number of species in the world held in captivity and in order to do that they used the database from the International Species Information System (ISIS) (now called Species360) – the most comprehensive database on zoos and aquariums in the world. They obtained the threat category of each species from the database and it turns out that ISIS zoos hold nearly 15 per cent of the total IUCN threatened species in the world. However, the drawback here is that most ISIS zoos are concentrated in the temperate regions whereas most threatened species are tropical. Clearly there is a mismatch between the areas where the captive populations are held and their native ranges/habitats. Unfortunately, there are still large parts of the world with high biodiversity value whose zoos are not represented in the global zoo network.

Zoos do a lot for conservation. There are dedicated species survival programs which have helped species come out from the brink of extinction, good examples of that being the black-footed ferrets, the red wolves, the Przewalski’s wild horse, and the California condors. After 10 years of working to strengthen the population of the endangered California condor, Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Zoo, were able to rebuild a population of fewer than two dozen birds to around 170. Successful breeding programs brought the Pere David’s deer back from extinction. Though this Asian deer became extinct in the wild, Chinese and European zoo programs enabled four of these deer to be released back into the wild in 1985, where they are now self-sustaining. These are just a few examples. The World Association of Zoos and Aquarium (WAZA)’s members are spending nearly US$ 350 million per year on conservation projects in the wild, making WAZA the third largest contributor to conservation in the world.

However, certain species have not been so fortunate – their reintroduction programs have failed for different reasons. Examples of such species include the Andean condor, the western lowland gorilla, the giant panda and the snow leopard. Of 145 reintroduction programs carried out by zoos in the last century, only 16 truly succeeded in restoring wild animal populations to the wild. Nonetheless, zoos are continuing to make efforts to help endangered species in every way they can. The Guardian newspaper highlighted the top ten species fighting extinction with the help of zoos, the nine animals (also included in the ten was Tanzania’s Verdcourt’s polyalthia tree) chosen from hundreds of zoo-backed conservation programmes were: the blue-crowned laughing thrush (China), mountain chicken frog (Dominica), the white-clawed crayfish (United Kingdom), the Amur Leopard (Russia), the Potosi pupfish (Mexico), Partula Snails (French Polynesia), the blue-eyed black Lemur (Madagascar), the Ploughshare Tortoise (Madagascar) and the scimitar-horned oryx (North Africa).

Zoo Pros and Cons?

So even though zoos are doing their best to conserve species both ex-situ and in-situ, there are pros and cons of captive breeding. The pros include restoring population of threatened species or those losing habitats, maintaining numbers and genetic diversity through periodic release, research on captives and formulating new strategies for conserving wild species. Research on captive animals increases knowledge of animal biology, genetics, behaviour, interactions, food habits etc. Zoos engage in research, preserve biodiversity (genetic and species) that may be threatened or at times even extinct in the wild, and they provide much needed funding for research and conservation projects across the world. They also provide inspiration and fascination for children who very often get to interact with and learn about nature and wildlife only at zoos. On the flip side, the negatives of captive breeding are the heavy costs involved, the possibility of inbreeding depression, and only a limited portion of the gene pool being conserved. Sometimes zoos have to compromise the crucial skills for wild survival and captive breeding can also affect animal health and well-being.

There are certain points that all captive breeding programs need to consider to minimize any negative impacts on animals held in zoos.

Firstly, these programs should not be seen as an ’emergency room treatment’ – they should not be resorted to when there are only ten individuals left in the wild but much earlier than that. Secondly, all captive breeding programs should ideally be carried out in the country of species’ origin making sure to engage the local communities as well. In the case of the Arabian oryx, its reintroduction program in Oman had failed because the community was not sufficiently involved.

The historical debate on zoos?

There has been a great deal of debate going around zoos and they have faced plenty of criticism on welfare and ethical issues. While some people argue that zoos play an important role in conservation and research, others counter that they do more harm than good. However, the good news is that in a recent survey (Fraser & Sickler, 2008) conducted across WAZA zoos, only nice percent of the surveyed population felt that zoos are inhumane and animal captivity is wrong. Most of them held a positive opinion and felt that zoos care for their animals. All of WAZA’s 1,400 zoos have to abide by the WAZA Code of Ethics and Welfare. Most modern zoos set up naturalistic enclosures to give animals a feel of their natural habitat and design enrichment programs to emulate the natural behaviour of the captive animal. The vet departments at zoos also take care of animal health and well-being and treat sick or injured animals not only in captivity but also in the wild.

Challenges zoos face and potential solutions?

Zoos face some serious challenges, the main one being how to balance the public experience with conservation. For most zoos, it is a challenge to be a force for conservation while continuing to put up a show. Another big challenge is prioritizing animals to be saved because very often there are too many animals in need of help and very little room and resources available with zoos. This forces zoos to make bitter choices at times. For example, American zoos are soon planning to drop the ion-tailed macaques even though there are only 4,000 left in the wild in the tropical rainforests of India. The macaques are being phased out because they can carry a form of herpes potentially deadly to humans. In order to house more animals of a single species for maintaining a viable population, zoos are forced to drop others. In another instance, the Mhor gazelles that had been squeezed out of the Saharan grassland by increased cattle ranching had to be phased out by the St.Louis Zoo because with only 50 of these left in American zoos, there was not enough genetic diversity without the risk of inbreeding depression. Zoos prioritize animals for conservation based on the following criteria: the animal must be endangered; it must have an important ecological role; and it should have a captive population big enough to grow the population without inbreeding. Another challenge zoos face is funding constraints which often tend to interfere with conservation efforts. Lastly, there is a potential danger from destruction caused by natural disturbances especially when zoos and aquariums are concentrated distribution of animals from all over the world.

So how do zoos overcome these challenges? For starters, they must choose quality over quantity. They should try and devote more resources to a chosen few rather than trying to conserve too many species together. Zoos should specialize in breeding a few at-risk targeted species rather than aiming to increase its species diversity as specialization increases breeding success. They should think beyond the visual appeal by placing less emphasis on attractive charismatic animals which are doing fine in the wild (for example the African Elephant and California sea lions) and focus more on animals in more urgent need of conservation (Monfort, 2012). They should try and publicize their conservation credentials in more detail on their websites and through social media (Carr & Cohen, 2011). They should try and work as a network because there is still a decent percentage (nearly 83 per cent) that needs to be represented in the global zoo network and it is important that they do that because membership to a regional association does influence their conservation effectiveness. After membership, the benefits in terms of conservation activity outweigh the monetary (membership) costs (Fabregas, 2011). Zoos should also make efforts to expand their conservation department since its small size often hampers conservation programmes (Miller, et al., 2004). They should try and provide more room to animals to increase their natural reproductive behaviour (Monfort, 2012). They should also strengthen their record keeping system because good records are really the backbone of effective management of any zoological collection (Fabregas, 2011). Lastly, zoos should try and move beyond the reintroduction paradigm because single species programs can often divert attention from ecosystem conservation (Zimmerman, et al., 2009).

Miller et al. has come up with a list of indicators that can be really handy for zoos for improving their conservation performance:
  • Does conservation thought define policy decisions?

  • Is there sufficient organizational funding for conservation activities?

  • Is there a functional conservation department?

  • Does the institution advocate for conservation?

  • Do conservation education programs effectively target children and adults?

  • Does the institution contribute directly to habitat protection locally and internationally?

  • Do exhibits explain and promote conservation efforts?

  • Do internal policies and activities protect the environment?

According to Fabregas et al., 2011, some key factors that influence conservation mission of zoos include the location of the zoo; the membership of a zoo association; and their record keeping practices. Private zoos and member zoos and those with a good record-keeping system are likely to contribution better to conservation.

It’s a never-ending debate on whether zoos are good or bad for animals.

In the end, it really depends on what zoo is in consideration. It also depends on whether we are referring to the well-being of a single animal held in a zoo or an animal in its actual home far away benefiting from the zoo’s research and conservation efforts. In a nutshell, zoos cannot be considered panacea for biodiversity conservation but there is enough scientific evidence to suggest they do play a critical role and have a great potential for conserving endangered species.

Image © B575 [CC BY-SA 3.0] Wikimedia Commons, Przewalski’s wild horses in El Paso Zoo – they narrowly avoided extinction thanks to worldwide zoo breeding programmes and are now being re-introduced to the wild