Born free troubled by recently released IUCN SSC position statement

Born Free Foundation reacts to IUCN Position Statement on the role of zoos, aquariums, and botanic gardens in species conservation. 

A tiger lies curled in a ball against a wooden fence in a zoo enclosure

On 11 October 2023, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Species Survival Commission (IUCN SSC) released its Position Statement on the role of botanic gardens, aquariums, and zoos in species conservation.  

The Position Statement makes overarching, and largely unsupported, assumptions about the value of zoos and aquariums to conservation, education, and research. It also tends to apply those assumptions broadly across a wide variety of facilities, the vast majority of which operate primarily for commercial gain.  

Born Free is deeply concerned that the negative impact on animal welfare, so often compromised in zoo and aquarium settings, is not addressed by the IUCN SSC in its document. This negative impact reduces their potential value to in situ conservation and increases the risk to the health and safety of other animals and people. 

Zoos and aquaria have a long history of trading on their ‘potential’ to be centres of conservation, education, and associated research. However, claims that they contribute to species conservation and public education require careful and detailed scrutiny, and cannot be used as a general justification to perpetuate the keeping and breeding of large numbers of wild animal species in captivity, the majority of which are not threatened with extinction and for which captive breeding has not been identified as a conservation need. 

The Position Statement cites a handful of species bred by zoos that have been successfully reintroduced to the wild. This overly simplistic approach risks giving the impression that many more such cases exist. In reality, cases where zoos have had a demonstrable and measurable positive impact on species recovery in the wild, including through reintroduction and reinforcement, are extremely limited, and the examples given in the statement likely represent a substantial proportion of those cases. The success of each programme cited, and how much of this success can be attributed to zoos, is also open to question. 

Ultimately, zoos are flawed ‘business models’ when it comes to prioritising conservation. Compared to the extent of the current biodiversity crisis, which suggests that a million or more species face possible extinction, the contribution of zoos is, at best, tiny.  

The cost of running the global zoo industry, embracing, as it does, perhaps 10,000 institutions of varying quality with a total annual turnover running into billions of dollars, offers little hope that zoos and aquaria can ever meaningfully contribute to conservation. The basic premise of zoos – public display facilities that present wild animals to a transient, visiting public, with the primary objectives of display, entertainment, and revenue generation – means that effective conservation, true education and public empowerment frequently ends up taking a back seat.  

The expensive business of maintaining living wild animals in captivity is a drain on vital resources that could more effectively be used to address the challenges faced by wild species and the wild habitats on which they rely – on keeping wildlife in the wild where it can contribute to climate change mitigation, slow, halt and reverse the decline in global biodiversity, and to support, to the benefit of nature and humanity, the variety of ‘ecosystem services’ that wildlife can help provide as part of healthy, resilient, functioning ecosystems. 

The IUCN, of which Born Free is a member, should reconsider its position and focus on recognising the importance of investing in in-situ conservation efforts, taking into account community-led conservation and the application of relevant indigenous and local knowledge, rather than assuming that ex-situ collections of wild animals – in the form of zoos and aquaria – represent an authoritative and viable conservation strategy, or offer a necessary or significant contribution to its success. 

Instead of, mistakenly, attempting to give credibility to the zoo industry through generic and unverified statements, the IUCN (which rightly makes much of its science-led credentials) should be seeking clear, peer-reviewed and unequivocal evidence for the claimed conservation, education and research contributions of zoos, and base any recommendations or Position Statements, which inevitably carry the weight and credibility of the IUCN, on such evidence.   

It is essential to balance any claimed conservation benefits against the animal welfare harms, the pressure on wild individuals, wild species and ecosystems resulting from their extraction from the wild, and the negative carbon costs of perpetuating the keeping of wild animals’ captive.  

The IUCN SSC should only permit its name to be associated with mechanisms and structures that can demonstrably show substantial positive outcomes for species conservation. Claims that zoos ‘can’ or ‘might’, at some point in the future, contribute to conservation successes (claims that have been made for the last five decades or more), should not trigger speculative, overarching endorsement by the IUCN SSC. 

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