Zoos are controversial. Some believe they are educational establishments that protect animals from dire threats in the wild. While others believe captivity is cruel and all beings have a right to roam free in their natural habitats. However, most can agree that if zoos continue to exist, they should at least be good for conservation.
Wildlife conservation aims to protect vulnerable species from extinction and preserve biodiversity for generations. It can be managed in many formats, from research to advocating policy changes and educating the general public.
The History of Zoos
Keeping animals in captivity is not a new concept; it has been carried out for thousands of years, with the earliest records dating back to 2500 BC. Ancient rulers kept menageries of exotic animals, souvenirs from their travels that reinforced their wealth and power.
One of the most notorious menageries was housed at the Tower of London. For centuries monarchs of Great Britain caged animals there, from lions to elephants. They were used for entertainment purposes and were often ill-treated and malnourished. This tradition swiftly ended in 1835 when concerns were raised for the welfare of the animals.
During the Enlightenment period in Europe, society became increasingly curious about scientific affairs, which then went on to incorporate zoology. People wished to study foreign animals and their unique behaviours, so enclosures that had authentic similarities to their wild habitats were necessary for reputable research. This is where zoos as we now know them began to evolve.
Saved from Extinction
Most modern zoos in Western culture cover conservation heavily in their mission statements, including three of the world’s leading zoological parks: ZSL London Zoo, San Diego Zoo, and Taronga Zoo. All of which are non-profit organisations.
Captive breeding programmes are typically funded by zoos, aiming to rebuild populations of endangered species. Such schemes have saved a plethora of animals from extinction.
The golden lion tamarin, a small primate found in Brazil, was marked as critically endangered in the 1970s, with less than 200 in the wild. Their main threats came from habitat loss and the global pet trade. Through international human conservation efforts, they are now still considered endangered, but their numbers have increased significantly to roughly 2500 in the wild, with one-third of their population today originating back to those reared by humans.
Due to their lack of voice, animals seem to bear the brunt of human corruption. The illegal wildlife trade is notoriously lucrative, worth over £15 billion annually. It is now the fourth biggest illegal trade, and despite the outrage, it continues to push animals closer to extinction.
Every 15 minutes an African elephant is illegally killed. At current rates, they could be mainly extinct in the wild by as close as 2040. Such threats are non-existent in captivity, and the animals are safe from outside risks.
However, it is not just direct human-wildlife conflict that disturbs animal populations. Severe weather can deplete their numbers. Last year Kenya experienced one of its most devastating droughts in decades, with 205 elephants dying in only nine months. Elephants “can consume up to 240 litres (63.4 gallons) of water a day”, and when those natural resources become scarce, their existence can very quickly be called into jeopardy.
Some critics claim that zoos use conservation as a mere cover-up to stay open, and as justification for keeping animals in captivity. They argue that humans benefit most from zoos, employing locals, and providing tourist attractions for visitors, reinforcing the conception that animals are simply entertainment.
Recent research undertaken by the Born Free Foundation found that 24% of species in UK zoological parks are threatened by extinction in the wild, and only 4-6% of total revenue collected by zoos goes directly into conservation work.
They questioned whether “zoos put the con in conservation”, finding that the majority of animals in UK zoos are instead chosen by how much their presence will increase visitor satisfaction.
Meerkats are listed under least concern by the IUCN, meaning their populations are healthy, currently facing no major threats. They reside in almost all UK zoos, with many offering visitors one-to-one experiences. Their endearing appearance and mischievous personality make them crowd pleasers; however, housing them is not cheap, and conservationists argue that this money could be used more appropriately on endangered species.
Born Free’s Co-Founder Will Travers OBE said: “While an elephant enclosure… costs many millions, field conservationists are crying out for even a fraction of those resources to protect wild elephants and their habitats. Bluntly, the multi-billion-pound zoo world promises much but delivers very, very little.”
Sir David Attenborough, a devoted animal lover and naturalist, questioned the use of glass windows on gorilla enclosures, calling for them to be replaced with peepholes to respect the gorilla’s solitude.
He said: “Sometimes visitors to zoos are not respectful and they start shrieking or waving their arms in order to get the poor gorilla to do something. They are not just animals. They are related to us. They value their privacy. Just imagine what it’s like to be there.”
His comments support the notion that zoos perhaps value their visitor’s experience more than the wellbeing of the wildlife living there. In the wild, contact with humans is rare, so current enclosures that allow people to stare are not at all reminiscent of life in the wild. Attenborough’s documentaries provide a more authentic and realistic insight into an animal’s behaviour than any zoo could.
Although some zoos pride themselves on the wellbeing of their animals, sadly, not all of them do. Across the world, so many animals suffer extensively at the hands of zookeepers, and their small dilapidated enclosures.
An elephant named Kaavan lived a solitary existence from 2012, until his subsequent rescue in 2020. He spent eight years alone in a neglected zoo in Islamabad, Pakistan. If left in the wild, he had the potential to reproduce and increase the wild elephant population. He now resides in an elephant sanctuary in Cambodia; however, millions of animals in captivity are not so lucky.
The Covid-19 pandemic also had difficult consequences for animals held in captivity. Zoos were closed to visitors and therefore they had to rely heavily on online donations to care for the animals. Many zoos struggled to feed their inhabitants, let alone fund international conservation projects. During this time many animals received substandard care.
Implementing Tougher Laws and Educating the New Generation
Perhaps as a society, we ought to place more pressure on governments to enforce strong laws that protect animals in the wild, as opposed to funding zoos and captivity.
The U.K. is in the final stages of banning trophy hunting imports. It is with the hope that hunters may be discouraged from hunting endangered species if they cannot exhibit the bodies of their kills at home.
Last year the U.K. also formally established the Ivory Act, one of the world’s toughest laws on the matter, where those found in breach of the law can face up to five years in prison.
The countries where endangered wildlife originates are falling behind. They urgently need to implement tough sanctions on poachers and educate their citizens that an animal is worth more to their community alive, than dead.
So are zoos good for conservation? There are some success stories, but unfortunately, it is still rather vague how much zoos do for wildlife conservation. More transparency is necessary, and more policies need to be introduced where quotas must be met; including a minimum amount of revenue donated to conservation efforts, and a minimum number of animals must be rewilded each year.
Edited by: Kavya
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