The Role of Zoos in Conservation
The main importance of zoos is their ability to educate visitors and impart a connection to wild animals. If no one had ever been amazed by the sight of a polar bear diving after a toy into the water just feet from their faces, they wouldn’t care so much about news reports that polar bears will be extinct in about 50 years because of habitat loss. The connections that people make with wild animals when they visit a zoo help them to care about animals, and overcoming apathy is half the battle towards conservation.
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Some zoos do contribute meaningfully to conservation, but by and large zoos mostly just talk a big game about it. No zoo is perfect, but I think that we are improving zoos towards the ideal every year. So, to address your question about if we should replace zoos with something better: we are. We are replacing zoos with better zoos.
1. There are 39 animal species currently listed by the IUCN as Extinct in the Wild.
These are species that would have vanished totally were it not for captive populations around the world, many of which reside in zoos. For me, this is the single most important role zoos can play. Incidentally, it’s the same for botanic gardens too, but no-one seems to care about those!
In 2014, 700 million individuals visited zoos worldwide.
OK, not all zoos are great at engagement. In fact not all zoos are great full stop. However, most likely that number of visits needed to make a type of association with the natural world that probably won’t have occurred otherwise.
Zoos are a living museum.
What we find out about wild creatures in imprisonment can enable us to oversee and monitor them in nature. From creature conduct, to regenerative rates to dietary necessities.
Zoos fund-raise for preservation efforts.
It’s hard to draw in individuals with protection endeavors occurring a large portion of a world away, trust me, I know. In any case, by empowering individuals to encounter untamed life direct, and utilizing that as a vessel where to recount to a story, we would i be able to expectation increment support in universal preservation endeavors.
For species whose survival in the wild looks in doubt, zoos often set up ‘insurance’ populations.
These are captive groups of animals that could in a worst case scenario assist in reintroduction to the wild, should the original population go extinct. The Amur leopard, for example: There are perhaps 35-65 left in the wild, a species teetering right on the brink. But fortunately there is a long running breeding program with over 200 surviving in captivity. The Zoological Society of London, as an example, participates in over 160 of these programmes.
Indeed the very idea of reintroducing species is new, and fraught with difficulties. It’s risky and hard. No-one wants it to go wrong, so give them your support.
Helping respond to emergencies.
In the last 20 years, an estimated 168 amphibian species have gone extinct. In addition to habitat loss, chytrid fungus has emerged as a deadly threat to worldwide amphibian populations. Responding to threats such as this, especially in small or medium sized vertebrates is surely one of the greatest uses of zoos around the world. In fact, many zoos have set up specialist amphibian centers and are pioneering treatment and breeding programmes.
They remind us that we can succeed.
Conservation is full of bad news stories, yet on many occasions I have stood peering through glass at a species that shouldn’t exist. At WWT Barnes on the outskirts of London I have stood on a wet Winter day watching Nene, which was once the world’s rarest goose (now, incidentally, successfully reintroduced). In Antsohihy, Madagascar I have peered through the mesh fence at the world’s only population of Malagasy pochard, a duck thought to be extinct for years and then rediscovered. In the UK I’ve stood while a Bali Myna flew over my head, a bird numbering less than 100 in the wild (but thankfully more than 1000 in captivity). For me at least, zoos remind us that conservation does work, we just need more of it.