Conservation in Zoos is “Too Random”

Zoos are the substance of continuous and contentious debate but would you conclude they are ‘too random’? Recent research thinks so…

London Zoo Image: By Nevit Dilmen (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons

Zoos are a conservation controversy. Many believe that they serve an essential function for breeding endangered animals and educating the public about their plight. Others however, see them as cruel institutions, keeping animals in captivity for our own amusement.

One study, published recently in PLoS ONE, concluded that the conservation efforts of zoos are too random and, by investigating which species are housed in individual zoos, found no discernible pattern or strategy. Scientists from the University of Southern Denmark believe that zoo resources are not always optimally spent and could be far more effective.

They discovered that the prevalence of threatened species in zoos does not always reflect the number of threatened species in the wild. One example of this is birds – zoo collections are heavily focused on birds, but only a few of these species are actually threatened. Threatened amphibians, insect-eating mammals and rodents are also under-represented in zoos. In fact, only 92 of the 201 endangered mammals are found in zoos, and not one of the 84 endangered species of insectivorous mammals is represented in zoo collections. Overall, 57 out of the 59 animal orders that are found in zoos have a lower proportion of threatened species in zoos than in the wild.

In contrast to this, some species are over-represented, such as turtles (that many zoos accept because they have been confiscated after smugglers tried to trade them illegally). Another group of species that the scientists found to be over-represented are carnivorous mammals from the order Dasyuromorphia, including quolls, dunnarts, numbats and the Tasmanian devil. They are found in zoos in high numbers because Australian zoos are trying to use the species for captive breeding programmes and to educate people about the local threats they face.

This discrepancy is only one challenge zoos face. Many zoos house only a small population of an endangered species, and are struggling to increase numbers. They must be able to share experience and individual animals with each other to create a healthy, growing population but this, the authors state, is “difficult if not impossible.” The reason is the huge distance between zoos, and the fact that it is so hard to get permits to exchange animals. International legislation is in place to protect threatened species from trafficking but this has become a “seriously huge barrier” to transporting animals across national boundaries for captive breeding programmes.

A solution put forward by the scientists is for zoos to work together in regional clusters, and coordinate their work on a few, or just one, high-risk species. With shorter distances between them, zoos could have a larger population of a species in that regional cluster, making it less vulnerable than smaller populations in isolated zoos. However, the authors stress that captive breeding is a conservation tool, not a conservation goal. The emphasis should always remain on protecting the natural habitats that endangered species need to survive in the wild, where they belong.

Tags:

No comments yet.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.*

Tick the box or answer the captcha.

You might also like

  • Damning Report Fuels Zoo Debate

    The assessment of 200 zoos in the twenty countries that were subject to separate investigations revealed that no country was without fault.

    By Alex Taylor
  • Last of the Lemurs?

    Facing threats such as illegal logging and hunting, many species are heading towards extinction, but a new survey has revealed that the situation is far worse than previously realised and in fact, lemurs are now considered to be the most endangered group of mammals in the world.

    By Alex Taylor
  • Saving the Saiga

    Sadly, poaching remains a problem, not for food but for Chinese traditional medicine. The translucent, foot-long horns belonging to the males are ground into a powder and used for the treatment of headaches and fever, and a pound of powder can fetch US$2,000.

    By Alex Taylor
  • Manatees Facing a Safe Future

    A new report has concluded that Florida’s manatees are likely to persist for the next 100 years despite facing continued threats, providing that wildlife managers continue to protect these iconic mammals and their habitat.

    By Alex Taylor