‘Land of the Lions’ – The Conservation Claims of Zoos

As London Zoo opens a new £5.2 million “Land of the Lions” exhibit, Chris Draper comments on the costs and conservation claims of zoos

Here’s the all-too-familiar blurb accompanying the announcement of the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) new Asiatic lion exhibit at London Zoo:

ZSL’s two zoos play a central role in educating the public on conservation issues and supporting global conservation breeding, ensuring a ‘safety net’ against extinction and protecting the genetic viability of species. ZSL’s new Land of the Lions exhibit will inspire our visitors and also supports an international breeding effort.

The usual “conservation” fanfare that accompanies every new enclosure, new building, new event at a zoo. It seems that anytime a zoo does anything the PR mantra remains the same: it’s all about conservation.

The trouble is that while zoos are so quick to use the language of “conservation this” and “education that”, when you really try to nail zoos down on what exactly they do for conservation and education, the façade starts to crack.

Yes, some zoos give some funds to field conservation – funds that may be desperately needed – but these funds are, as my colleague Ian Redmond has termed them, “scraps from the table” – a pittance compared to the income made by these zoos each year. Fund-raising for conservation simply is neither the priority nor the mandate for zoos. For example, 2014 finances for the ZSL (the charitable organisation that operates London and Whipsnade Zoos) show that it spends at least five times more on simply keeping and displaying animals at its two zoos than it does on all its conservation programmes. And zoo associations such as the US-based Association of Zoos and Aquariums encourage their members to commit a paltry 3% of their income to field conservation (and that figure is aspirational). As a means of generating funds for conservation, running a zoo seems to be a remarkably inefficient and wasteful way to operate.

And while the conservation funds raised by zoos are relatively uninspiring, their expenditure is astronomical: $28m on a gorilla exhibit at Houston Zoo; €11.3m on an elephant exhibit at Opel Zoo in Germany; $56m on the Smithsonian National Zoo’s elephant exhibit, the list of new developments in recent years goes on and on – by modern zoo standards, London Zoo’s £5.2 million is actually a relatively modest spend for an animal exhibit.

But £5.2m would represent a relatively earth-shattering sum for the conservation of the Asiatic lion – if only the funds were being spent in India and not on keeping animals captive in Regent’s Park for visitors to gawp at.

But surely £5.2m at least delivers a state-of-the-art enclosure, replicating life in the wild near-perfectly and allowing the animals a wide range of behavioural opportunities? Well, London Zoo’s “Land of the Lions” is proudly stated to be 2,500m2. Sounds a fair size? Well, not when you consider that this is around the size of 1/3 of a football pitch; or when you consider that the natural range of an Asiatic lion in India is about 12,000 times that size! In fact, the whole of London Zoo (approx. 37 acres) would fit into the range of one wild Asiatic lion 200 times over.

The message from zoos seems to be this: build small, spend big, and call it conservation.

4 Responses to “‘Land of the Lions’ – The Conservation Claims of Zoos”

  1. Pat Kelsall Says:

    Agree that funding zoos as conservation tools is not the best. If education is carried out correctly then there is one positive. You state that funding conservation of say the Asiatic Lion would be real conservation however I have recently wondered about technology such as
    A 3d zoo with such technology would be highly educational without abuse of animals in captivity. Cameras and other technology could be used in “modern zoos” letting people see how animals live in reality. Webcams following raptors have large audiences and I am sure the same could apply to wild life habitats and part of a zoo experience.
    In short I find little to be optimistic about zoos when it is always down to profits and continues with most zoos to be an abusive relationship.

  2. Sue Murray Says:

    I recently read a book called Zoo Doctor by Oliver Graham-Jones, London Zoo’s first ever full-time vet, appointed in 1951. The close association between the Zoo, the local hospitals, and the Welcome Foundation was an eye-opener for me. On such foundations has London Zoo built its business – if you can find a copy of this book, please read it.

    All praise for Born Free Foundation and Care For the Wild International’s work – thanks for being there for the animals!

  3. polly barnes Says:

    At last! Somone who speaks the truth about zoos and their deceitful ways to justify keeping animals in captivity on the pretence of conservation when in fact the only reason for continuing the archaic practice is about money. Breeding the odd giraffe or rhinoceros is not conservation.
    Trying to preserve endangered species should be done in the environment the animal lives, funding should be provided for purpose built environs where species can be monitored and cared for but with little or no human intervention unless really necessary.but first and formost , the reasons why these animals are endangered needs to be addressed on an international level?
    Do l live a dream? Perhaps, but l do know that zoos are just as bad as seaworld and need to close

  4. Anthi Paganou Says:

    £5.2m are too much money! Just imagine how many things could be done with just half of the money! They clearly don’t use them wisely! And calling captivity ‘conservation’ or ‘education’ shows how little they know about this matter! Animals are not happy there! The space provided to them is not big enough! How would those people feel if they were trapped in a small box, not 12.000 times smaller, I’ll say 10 times smaller than their house! And what children learn from it? I’ll tell you what: ‘Zoos are great, let’s go see some wild animals! So much fun!’. That’s all they learn! Making kids believe that animals are treated fairly there while it is nothing but that can not be called ‘education’! Education is to teach them the TRUTH! And then we’ll see which ones would want to go!