Zoos and Conservation, do they mix?

Updated: Aug 24, 2021

I think most of us, sometime in our lives have visited a zoo. Where I grew up there were two zoos which I visited on a number of occasions and enjoyed them as a fun day out. One of my more memorable experiences was having sand flung at my mom and I by a Chimpanzee. However after visiting a number of nature reserves and National parks where the animals roam freely across large tracts of land, the zoo didn’t have that much of an appeal to me anymore. However I do feel that modern zoos do serve a purpose in society. You’re probably thinking, That’s outrageous, zoos are cruel and treat the animals horribly. In some instances around the world this is true and these institutions need to be dealt with by the relevant animal welfare organisations and authorities in the area. No, I’m referring to the well-established modern zoos. A number of people around the world don’t have the ability to visit a different country and see polar bears in their natural habitat or a lion hunting a gazelle on the Serengeti plains and so a zoo is the next best thing. Along with this many zoos have started breeding programs for endangered animals as well, whether they are successful when breeding in captivity is a another story. Let’s take a deeper look at zoos and see if they are really beneficial to conservation or not.

Zoos can be quite entertaining and important places when animal welfare is put first.

It is hard to give an exact date to the origin of the zoo as it has changed in nature and meaning throughout its history. Although, if a zoo is taken to surround the collecting and displaying of living wild animals, then the earliest records can be traced back over 4500 years to historic civilizations such as the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Romans.

The common role throughout the history of the zoo is of it as a place where people could be entertained and relax. The predecessor of the modern zoo aimed to be status-symbols of the rich and powerful though they were occasionally open to the public for entertainment purposes. The late 18th and early 19th century saw an important leap in the evolution of the zoo with the implementation of zoological societies like the Zoological Society of London that showed a scientific side for zoos and opened the first truly public zoos. Whilst acknowledging the scientific importance of zoos it is thanks at least in part to the efforts of zoological societies that these establishments have grown into a large tourism and leisure experience.

Zoos allow people to get up close an personal with animals.

Today, zoos open to the public can be found in mainly every country around the globe. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) now incorporates more than 1,200 institutions which together attract over 600 million visitors per year. The initial zoos of the modern era followed in the footsteps of their forefathers and were started with an emphasis on allowing visitors to watch the animals rather than on the needs and requirements of the animals and with little or no interest given to animal rights or conservation; two issues which have not reached the public agenda till relatively recently in comparison with the age of zoos. In contrast to the former image of zoos as primarily sites of entertainment, zoos now exist to aid the conservation of species under threat of extinction. This is a view widely expressed by those involved with zoos such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums and supported by academics who have remarked that “conservation is generally considered to be the main role of the zoo today.”

The change of the presentation of zoos as sites of conservation and away from them as areas of entertainment has been found as a “structural and ideological transformation” by scientists that can be dated back to the 1960‟s however the potential of zoos to aid conservation and research into animal conservation was noted in the late 1800s‟. This change is still an ongoing process that has been supported by a recognition of the rights of animal by the general public and an associated increase in the dislike of the capturing and presentation of animals in small empty cages. In such a situation, the zoo as a location for the indulgence of an unashamedly recreational gaze upon its captive inmates, becomes less and less appealing, and more difficult to justify. Consequently, zoos, once bound for failure, are popular again because they present themselves as conservation centers.” An important part of conservation efforts in the modern zoo is the management of research on animals. Along with this, conservation includes captive breeding programs of endangered species to promote their survival and for release into natural habitats and protection of their natural environments.

A good zoo is when the needs of the animals come first

In addition to being adjusted to centers of conservation, modern zoos have been built as places where the public can learn and engage about animals and how they can contribute to the survival of not only endangered animal species but all different types of animal species. Active learning possibilities can be aided by, operations such as, the provision of animal demonstrations, volunteer or animal handler talks, touch tables, direct contact by visitors with animals, and multimedia factual information. It has also been noted that the potential for learning in zoos is increased if animals are kept and fed in as natural/realistic environment as possible. The success of the transfer of conservation messages lies with an informal learning environment of the zoo that allows the public to freely choose what and how to learn in a way that has been called „free-choice learning‟. The modern zoo is, therefore, shown to the public as being an area of education, research, and conservation.

Another source suggests that zoos rarely aid in habitat or species restoration projects or provide funding for conservation efforts in natural habitats. Scientists have also questioned the capacity of zoos to make an important contribution to the breeding of endangered species because of their limited size in proportion to the requirements of larger species. On top of this, zoos have faced an influx of criticism about animal welfare and animal rights in the last 30 years that have questioned their potential to act as productive aiders of conservation and had a negative impact on their public image. This situation may not be helped when it is shown that a large percentage of animals in the majority of zoos are not endangered and therefore not in need of conservation at the present moment.

Zoos can be used as goo education locations for people who would not normally see certain animals where they live.

Entertaining patrons is important to ensure effective learning experiences, particularly when these are directed at children and people who feel they are visiting zoos as part of a relaxing experience. It is known that effective education can only be obtained if the desire of patrons for enjoyment is met. However, it has been found that there is little evidence of the ability of zoos to educate members about the need for conservation through informal learning programs however more formal educational programs within zoos do appear to have better success.

The potential for zoos to aid in conservation is not a new strategy for the zoo community. Zoos and aquariums have initiated conservation projects in natural environments, alongside research and education programs. For example, participants of WAZA collectively spend U.S. $350 million per year on conservation actions in the natural environment, which makes them the third major donator to conservation worldwide after the Nature Conservancy and the World Wide Fund for Nature global network. Given the extent of the biodiversity challenge, it is important that conservation departments and policymakers consider the potential that zoos as a worldwide network can provide. There are less zoo visits per million people in countries inside biodiversity hotspots as compared with countries outside hotspots. However, there was a negative relationship between the number of zoo visits per million people and combined bird and mammal species richness in different countries.

Educating children is an important aspect for zoos and conservation alike

A major goal of all AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited zoos and aquariums is communicating the importance of conservation, the role that visitors can play in supporting conservation and the important role that zoos and aquariums are playing in encouraging and supporting conservation. It aids aquariums and zoos measure their effectiveness in supporting visitor conservation perception change; it also allows institutions to contribute to the growth of a national AZA database, which helps all AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums substantiate the help they are making to public conservation education.

An example of zoos helping with conservation

Congo Gorilla Forest, a project of 2.7 hectares in Bronx Zoo dedicated to wild animals and habitats from central Africa. It gives visitors an option to make a direct contribution to the conservation of the African rainforest by allowing them to state the project that will benefit from the three dollar supplementation on their entrance fee. The initiative raises one million dollars a year for fieldwork. Another example is the They’re Calling on You campaign at Melbourne Zoo. Visitors to the gorilla enclosure are asked to donate their old cell phones, which are then sent off to be recycled. The strategy is to save coltan, an ore that is extracted at the expense of the gorillas’ habitat, and to grow funding for their conservation. Zoo 9 In recent news I have seen two zoos take products containing unsustainable palm oil products off their shelves to show they are against deforestation. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is the overarching organization for the world zoo and aquarium community. Its nearly 300 members include leading zoos and aquariums, regional and national associations of zoos and aquariums, along with some affiliate organizations from around the world. WAZA membership requires a steadfast commitment to conservation.

It can be seen in the picture above that zoos have transformed themselves and adapted to the pressures of public outcry. Many people may still have mixed opinions about zoos and how they are run. I suggest that before you go and visit a zoo do some research on it first. What type of enclosures does it have, do the animals look healthy and do they have conservation projects set in place. If none of these boxes are ticked, don’t support them.

Zoos can aid support and funding for conservation efforts in the wild.


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