As I mentioned briefly in my last blog post, zoos are one of the most underappreciated and underestimated forces of the conservation world. Without zoos, there would be an even larger number of extinct animals than there already is.
Not only do zoos keep animals to show off to the public and to use them for education, every single animal kept in zoos (good zoos that is), are used in breeding programmes to secure the genetics of different species so that there is no interbreeding of related individuals and to help increase the population at the same time.
Zoos are especially important in this day and age where the plight of animals’ extinction is primarily human-caused. Humans have caused so much habitat destruction and persecution of animals that they wouldn’t be able to recover unless humans completely disappeared from the planet. We are able to help keep healthy populations of animals within the zoos care and to make sure that all individuals are viable, should populations be needed to be released back into the wild.
Conservation doesn’t just happen in the zoo
Not only do zoos physically hold backups of animals, should the devastating day come where they are declared extinct in the wild and so the captive populations would be needed for recovery programmes, but zoos all over the world also run large numbers of in-situ conservation programmes, funded by the zoos.
My local zoo, Chester Zoo, has many in-situ conservation projects that it’s involved with, I think in the region of 60-70 projects around the world. These projects work with a variety of animal species from small passerine birds, to lemurs, to tigers.
For example, the tiger project run by Chester Zoo “Living with Tigers” works with the local community in Nepal in the surrounding areas of the tiger’s habitat to help prevent human-tiger conflict. It works with around 1200 households across eight communities in the surrounding areas; working to improve the safety of humans and livestock.
With all conservation projects, it is of utmost importance for the local communities to be involved, as without their help, the problems the animals are facing still continue. It is all well and good to plan a project and to always see the best outcomes in your mind, but unless those ideas and goals are introduced to the local communities, with education such as the importance of those animals, or techniques to keep themselves and their livestock safe, there won’t be much, if any improvement of the wildlife populations.
Reintroductions to the wild using zoo animals
As I have mentioned, zoos are often the last remaining sources of species when they have gone extinct in the wild. Some zoos have had great success at reintroducing species that have been wiped out in their native habits, one of which is the reintroduction of two species of snail to French Polynesia. Chester Zoo alongside ZSL Whipsnade Zoo had breeding programmes to recover populations of Partula rosea and Partula varia which were then taken back to French Polynesia to be released over 25 years after a human-introduced invasive species wiped them out. Some of the most successful reintroductions are from invertebrate and lower invertebrate groups as the logistics and breeding times of these species is often dramatically less than large mammals and birds.
There are reintroduction programmes that have involved large mammals and I’m sure birds as well. One of the most well-known was when 5 black rhinos from zoos across Europe were taken to be reintroduced to a reserve in Rwanda. These rhinos endured a long translocation and the aim of getting them to Rwanda was to help increase the genetic diversity of the rhinos in the national park.
As a success story, the black rhino reintroduction programme gives hope for other species that are endangered due to human actions. The rhino population is in dire need of saving after humans are responsible for a 95% decline of the black rhino.
Without the programmes run by zoos, and the hard work of the keepers caring for them, the veterinary teams, the conservation officers, geneticists and a whole host of other people behind the scenes of the enormous efforts that are made, some of our animals would be gone forever. If humans are still going to persecute animals, zoos have to stay. We cannot let our animals that belong in the natural world go extinct because of greedy, selfish humans that only see wildlife with big price tags on their heads. The day that humans are no longer a threat to animals, is the day that we would no longer need to have zoos.
I am aware of people who don’t support zoos, these are usually people who, through no fault of their own, are fairly ignorant to what goes on behind the scenes of zoos. Humungous efforts from keepers, nutritionists, animal behaviour experts, vets, other researchers and experts all work to make sure that the animals receive the highest standard of care and welfare. No, a zoo enclosure will never be like it is in the wild, however, almost all animals that are in zoos now have been born there and know nothing else, therefore, if all zoos were forced to shut, the animals couldn’t be returned to the wild as they have never developed the survival skills they would need to live there.
A final note – please look into supporting your local zoo if you can, many have set up just giving pages as they are in desperate need of money to be able to feed and look after their animals. The government has made it almost impossible for zoos to access funding and they keep being forced to shut during lockdown periods. The work that the zoos are involved with is paramount in keeping a large number of species from going extinct, not only that but a lot of healthy animals may need to be euthanised if they are unable to care for them in their zoo homes.