Animals / Environment / Nature / Science

Zoos and wildlife conservation

Zoo (Photo: Diaga Ellaby)

Zoos have become such an integral part of lives that it almost makes us forget that the animals that we see in the enclosed spaces actually belong to the wild and not in the middle of the cities. 

Ancient Egyptians were known to keep animals such as birds, giraffes in captivity and this practice of sheltering animals continues to even this date. There are more than 10000  registered zoos worldwide, with the world witnessing a fast decline of many species, efforts for conservation of wildlife hence has become a multiple tiered approach. In present times the extinction rate of wildlife is 1000 to 10000 times higher than the natural rate, hence there is an urgent need to speed up conservation activities. It isn’t just the wildlife biologists out in the field who need to contribute to preservation of the natural world, it is also zoos, academic institutions, policy makers and the general public who need to work together to make this a reality. The closest the general public can come to wildlife apart from books is in the zoos. Hence zoos are not just meant to give us informed entertainment but there has been increasing pressure and awareness for them to proactively be transformed into places of wildlife conservation. The dictionary definition of wildlife conservation is protection of plants, animals and their habitats. While protecting habitats is not possible in a man made setting such as a zoo, nevertheless they form an institution which can give insight into how protection strategies can be applied in the wild. Conservation is divided into 2 main strategies, one is in situ conservation which is conservation of wildlife in natural habitats and preservation of their ecosystems while ex situ conservation is transportation of wildlife from their natural habitat to a different environment such as an artificial environment, a good example is zoos. Patrick and Tunnicliffe (2012) came up with 5 pointers on the role that zoos play in protecting our natural world which are summarized below

  • Zoos can play of the role of messengers of wildlife conservation
  • Zoos run programs to maintain and breed genetically diverse collection of plants and animals, thus can help in maintaining a healthy diversity
  • Placement of zoos in urban setting helps directly influence the government in policies that affect wildlife
  • Zoos act as conservation guides helping scientists and general public alike future benefits of conservation
  • At a very basic level, zoos are a place where the general public can learn about animal behavior

Gorilla (Photo: Daniel Hansen)

At the core of conservation, it is necessary for both in situ and ex situ conservation efforts to complement each other to have a meaningful and sustainable impact on wildlife preservation. Some zoos nowadays take part in captive breeding programs which has resulted in saving rare wildlife and maintaining high genetic diversity. Animals thus produced are also being reintroduced into the wild. Since the 1960s, the idea of reintroducing wildlife into their natural habitat has existed and one of the first successful programs reintroduced Arabian Oryx into the wild in 1982 in Oman. Other success stories include the introduction of California Condor, golden lion tamarin and black footed ferrets. Zoos also contribute to scientific research where biologists studying the behavior, genetic diversity etc in a semi controlled environment is giving insight which is helping in nature conservation. 

Flamingos (Photo:Ashley Van Nuys)

For me personally, zoos bring out mixed emotions of sadness and happiness. Sadness because, if there was a choice, I wouldn’t want to see any animal in such a closed setting and happiness because I get a snapshot of the wonderful diverse world that we all live in.

Royalty free images were used.

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