What do Zoos do for Conservation?

A guest Blog from Born Free Foundation and Born Free USA CEO Adam M Roberts.

The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) was established to conserve the world’s biological resources and is supported by 194 States who have signed a legally-binding treaty. The CBD introduced the Strategic Plan for Biodiversity 2011-2020, made up of 20 “Aichi Biodiversity Targets” under five Strategic Goals. Aichi Target 1 is that by 2020 at the latest, “people are aware of the values of biodiversity and the steps they can take to conserve and use it sustainably”.

A recent paper published in the journal Conservation Biology claims to evaluate the contribution of zoos and aquariums in relation to Aichi Biodiversity Target 1. The study evaluated whether zoo visitors gained an increased understanding of biodiversity and knowledge of actions to help protect biodiversity during their visit, using data from 26 zoos and aquariums across 19 countries. According to the accompanying press release, “the study found that visiting a zoo or aquarium has a measurable positive impact on people’s biodiversity knowledge”.

But before we accept this conclusion, let’s look more closely at the evidence. What do visitors to a small number of zoos and aquariums have to do with whether countries can fulfil their obligations to Aichi Biodiversity Target 1?

Firstly, the authors appear to overlook the fact that at least 1 of the 19 countries included in their study – the United States – is not a signatory to the CBD and are therefore under no legal obligation to uphold the strategies or action plans.

Secondly, the study reveals that just over half the respondents (56.5%) reportedly saw or heard biodiversity information during their visit. But what about the 43.5% of zoo visitors who apparently did not see or hear biodiversity information during their visit? Let’s stop and think about that for a minute: Almost half of zoo visitors in this study did not acknowledge being exposed to biodiversity information. This makes the educational and conservation claims of zoos start to look rather shaky.

Furthermore, the study indicates that the most noticeable effect on changing biodiversity understanding was on visitors with a formal education and/or who were already a member of an environmental group. Hardly surprising that respondents with a higher level of education and those who were already interested in environmental issues are more likely to spend time looking at and digesting biodiversity information in zoos is it?

Finally, all the zoos and aquariums included in the study were members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA). While there are over 300 WAZA members worldwide, these zoos represent a tiny proportion of the many thousands of zoos that exist globally. WAZA member organisations simply cannot be considered representative of zoos and aquaria worldwide.

So, overall, much more evidence is needed before we leap to the conclusion that zoos are integral to fulfilling our commitments to increasing biodiversity awareness.

But what of captive breeding, that apparently key activity that zoos undertake in the name of conservation? Another paper published in the same journal in November 2014 looked at the captive breeding of mammals in zoos. The main aim of this paper was to assess whether coordinated breeding programmes in zoos have succeeded in increasing captive populations.

The study suggests that too much effort is expended on species that are not threatened in the wild, or are otherwise poor candidates for eventual release to the wild. These species are often larger mammals such as primates and carnivores; species which may encourage visitors to the zoo but are very expensive to maintain in captivity.

The author concludes that “there is literally not enough space in the world’s zoos right now to substantially increase the number of truly successful captive breeding programs”.

So, if the success of captive breeding programmes in zoos is likely to be limited, and zoos are not effectively making the public aware of biodiversity, it begs the question: just what ARE zoos doing for conservation? Are their claims to be contributing to conservation just smoke and mirrors? The Born Free Foundation is convinced that the time has come for the zoo industry to come clean, and to be transparent with their visitors and the wider public about just what exactly zoos do – and don’t do.

One Response to “What do Zoos do for Conservation?”

  1. Christina Sophia Potter Says:

    I think natural reserves should be used for conservation purposes instead, and resources should be shifted from zoos where they are routed now, towards such natural reserve parks. These should be large enough to give a real sense of freedom and peace to these creatures. They have the right to the dignity of a life in their natural environment and any visits from the public should be made at an appropriate distance through guides and with respect for their personal lives. Just as aquariums and captivity of sea animals should be replaced by conservation tourism where marine specialists can collaborate with or act as, guides to go out in a respectful way to sea and try and catch a glimpse and view dolphins, whales and other sea creatures and learn about them better within their natural environment. Of course with wildlife poaching making it very difficult to ensure safety in the wild for many of animals (elephants, rhinos etc..) the natural reserves by being developed and used properly and resources allocated to them could be a solution until poaching is brought under some type of control (hopefully one day).