Green Guru: Zoos and Conservation

Photograph by Joel Sartore

Green Guru: Zoos and Conservation

Zoos and aquariums help protect species in captivity and the wild.

By Susan Cosier
Published: January-February 2013

Do zoos really help conservation?
Sarah Purton, Des Moines, IA

Black-footed ferrets. Condors. Red wolves. They might have gone extinct if not for zoos. Much of the conservation work of zoos and aquariums happens behind the scenes, and the 175 million people who visit them each year may not know the extent of their efforts.

In 2011 facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) put $136 million into field conservation (that figure excludes funds for caring for resident animals or education). The money paid for, among other endeavors, the rehabilitation and release of birds and turtles affected by oil spills, and warden positions at national parks in developing countries. "These are truly projects that have an impact on animals in the wild," says Shelly Grow, an AZA senior conservation biologist.

Zoos typically take in species that are close to blinking out. When the number of wild California condors plummeted to 20 in the 1970s, institutions brought them all into captivity until they rebounded enough to be re-released. Today 233 of the roughly 400 closely monitored scavengers fly free.

Other efforts to conserve species include the San Diego Zoo's project to collect and freeze animal tissue and cell cultures, banking the genetic material for potential future use. And the Amphibian Ark will keep frogs and toads threatened with the deadly chytrid fungus in captivity until they can be safely reintroduced into the wild.

Still, says Grow, the main function of zoos and aquariums is to raise awareness of the need for conservation beyond enclosures.

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Susan Cosier

Susan Cosier is former senior editor at Audubon magazine. Follow her on Twitter @susancosier.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Confusing Zoos With Circuses

My apologies Janine, but I have to also, respectfully, disagree with you on your first point. Circuses were, and often still are, solely for entertianment. Zoos, however similar their origins, have in most cases evolved to promote the welfare and conservation of species.
However, I do agree wholeheartedly with you that we have plundered with abondon, causing much loss of natural habitat and many extinctions. And that until we change our behavior, the loss will be borne by the animals and plants we are supposed to be sharing this fragile ecosystem with.

Response to Janine

I completely disagree that keeping animals in Zoo's negates the conservation work. First off, Zoo's have made huge strides in recent years on making sure the animals are comfortable and often do daily enrichment so the animals can use their natural instincts just as they would in the wild. That being said, the animals in Zoo's are ambassadors for their species. Many people don't care about what they don't understand, and don't understand what they can't see. Zoo's offer a change for people to look these animals in the eye, see how beautiful they are, and to learn about that animal. Kids eyes light up when they see an animal close that they wouldn't otherwise get to see, and getting them excited about something if the first step towards conservation. These animal ambassadors play a vital role in getting the public engaged in conservation efforts, which in turn help those in the wild. I couldn't disagree more with your comments.

comment on article

I don't doubt your figures at all, and it is important that zoos are doing this work. Unfortunately though, keeping wild animals in captivity for the purpose of human entertainment negates a lot of the conservation work. Zoos give people the impression that wild animals can be kept in jail ethically, their freedom denied. People cease to question the validity of this because it is widespread, government-sanctioned and long-standing. The reason why so many animals are endangered is because humanity doesn't consider an animal's needs to be as high a priority as our own. We need to regain balance with nature, and zoos are not helping in this regard.

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