Will modern zoos save wild animals from extinction?

It is time for zoos to rethink captivity and save many of the species under threat of extinction.

Red Ruffed Lemurs - Amsterdam Zoo

It is calculated that more than 8 million animal species live on our planet, and it has been predicted that as many as 3 million could disappear by the end of this century. Loss of habitat, climate change and illegal trade are the most common causes of extinction. Zoos could soon become our last chance to preserve the remaining animals from extinction, however at the moment they play host to a limited selection of the species present on our planet.

When the London Zoological Gardens opened to the public in 1847, modern zoos were born. The London Zoo was originally conceived as a sanctuary of species for scientific study back in 1828, and about 20 years later the Zoo was transformed. Exotic and rare animals that were historically inaccessible were captured not only for scientific research but also to be displayed to curious spectators.

There are now thousands of zoos all around the world, with nearly two hundred millions visitors per year. It is a profitable but disputed. It is said that the primary objective of zoos is the conservation of endangered species as well as continued, scientific research on the animal kingdom. Allegedly the entertainment factor plays only a secondary role.

  Red Ruffed Lemurs  - Amsterdam Zoo

Red Ruffed Lemurs - Amsterdam Zoo

This statement is controversial and disputed by critics, who tend to believe that the primary objective of zoos is purely the generation of profit, to the detriment of animals. This could be true in some cases, even though the vast majority of zoos use the revenue generated by visitors to fund other research institutes. The London Zoo, for instance, maintains the Nuffield Institute of Comparative Medicine and the Wellcome Institute of Comparative Physiology.

Furthermore, breeding programmes for the endangered species are coordinated at international level, and there are regional programmes all over the globe for their conservation.  So yes, animals are still displayed mostly for our amusement, but something is changing. Zoos are breeding endangered species and their generated revenues help continued scientific research; a virtuous circle. One could then ask a simple question: are zoos hosting endangered species only, due to their specific need in terms of protection and breeding. Let’s consider the case of the Natura Artis Magistra, the Amsterdam Zoo.

  African Lion  - Amsterdam Zoo

African Lion - Amsterdam Zoo

The Amsterdam Zoo supports conservation projects and is a member of several organizations dedicated to nature conservation. It participates in the European breeding programs for endangered species (EEPs) and gives special attention to the endangered trees and plants in the park. Its primary function is not to conserve and breed endangered species, but to provide a level of education to the international community regarding the importance of nature and the environment.

There are many conservation projects supported by the zoo: from reintroducing the jaguar in Argentina and improving the survival of the Polynesian tree snail, to supporting the Wae Wuul Reserve programme for the protection of Komodo dragons and cooperating with the FPWC (Foundation for the Preservation of Wildlife and Cultural assets) for the preservation of the bio-diversity in the Caucasus to name a few.

Microorganisms aren’t overlooked either: in 2014 ‘Micropia’, the first museum of microbes in the World, opened its doors and it has recently been awarded as the most pioneering museum in Europe.

Lioness - Amsterdam Zoo

Let’s focus now on the population of animals held in captivity at the zoo, and see how we can answer the question previously asked. If we take a closer look at the species, and in particular the mammals, we soon realise that the majority of the animals held in captivity are not threatened in wild conditions and only a few of them are endangered.

A well-known example among the endangered species would be the lion. The second-largest living cat after the tiger, lions live in the wild mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. There are some remnant population in India, where the species is critically endangered and resides in the Gir Forest National Park only. In Africa, the lion is considered a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) with the population disappearing from more than 80% of their natural African habitat. The figure has now reduced to about 20,000 animals across the continent, although those numbers are still uncertain ad subject. It is a shocking statistic, if we consider that in the 1940’s lions were recorded at an estimated 450,000. The decrease is mainly due to the behaviour of humans: loss of habitat, prey decline, pesticides and poisoned carcasses used by farmers to keep the lions away from livestock.

How can we save them? For many experts, the most effective solution would be to focus on the five biggest African ecosystems (the Serengeti, the Selous, the Ruaha-Rungwaia, the Okavango-Hwange, and the Great Limpopo). These ecosystems include about half of the African lions, with a population that provides a genetic diversity that would support their survival.  Conservation of lions has required the creation and maintenance of national parks and monitored game reserves, and of course, breeding projects in zoos.

Asian Elephant - Amsterdam Zoo

Another endangered animal held in the Amsterdam Zoo is the Asian elephant, the largest living land animals in Asia. They have been revered for centuries, playing an important role in the continent's culture and religion. Mainly threatened by poaching and loss of habitat, they still play a critical role in maintaining the region's forests but their habitat is shrinking.

As the human population continues to expand, the species remaining habitat is quickly shrinking. Large development projects such as dams, roads and agricultural plantations have fragmented elephant habitat. As a result wild elephant populations are now mostly small, isolated and unable to socialize as normal because ancient migratory routes are cut off by human settlements.

More than 100,000 animals were roaming Asia at the beginning of the 20th Century, but the number has fallen by more than 50% over the last three generations. The Asian Elephant is now considered an endangered species by the IUCN since 1986.

  Japanese Macaque  - Amsterdam Zoo

Japanese Macaque - Amsterdam Zoo

The most endangered species that is bred at the Amsterdam Zoo is the Red Ruffed Lemur. They are a medium sized species within the lemur family, and tend to look more like a primate than their extended family. Listed by the IUCN as critically endangered, they occur only in the rainforest of Masoala, northeast of Madagascar. Half of the primates and all the lemurs are critically endangered and at risk of extinction due to deforestation, an illegal pet trade, burning of habitat and hunting. The creation of the Masoala National Park in Madagascar and a special breeding plan (developed for the animals held in captivity in the zoos) are helping to protect this species. Fortunately red ruffed lemurs breed well in captivity, but their very limited genetic diversity could represent a threat for the survival of the species into the wild.

Lions, elephants and lemurs are part of the small group of endangered species hosted at the Amsterdam Zoo. And here is where zoos such as the Amsterdam Zoo can possibly do more.

There are a few significant things that can be addressed. One of the challenges ahead lies within the selection of enclosures. For instance, hosting only species at a level of critical risk rather than those that are not vulnerable. Could this provide a solution to extinction? A few examples of non threatened animals from the Amsterdam Zoo are the Black-tailed Prairie Dog, the Japanese Macaque, and the Alpine Ibex just to name a few. These three examples and many more are all considered of least concern by the IUCN, as their population is numerous and healthy worldwide. It doesn’t mean they should be ignored, or soon they will also be at risk. For now, it should be a priority to allow creatures that can survive and prosper in their natural environment to do so.

Japanese Macaque - Amsterdam Zoo

There is also the matter of space. The California sea lions (another example of a non-vulnerable species hosted at the Amsterdam Zoo) are currently swimming up and down their enclosure with no rest inside a very small pool. How can zoos improve and set up a carefully managed, suitably sized space for the animals? By concentrating on fewer species the standards should improve, possibly helping to minimalize the impact captivity has on animals. There may be a day in the future when sanctuaries, zoos and parks succeed in replicating an animal natural habitat.

Can zoos re-think and shift their mission to a paradigm of protection? It’s a paradigm that pursues a double objective: protecting those species that are currently under threat and focusing on education so as to preserve those successfully living wild. Improving captivity and breeding programs and possibly making sure that the species in need are hosted in an appropriate space could make it possible to increase protection.

Focusing on education at all levels and including the concept of protection in all education programs to highlight the current risks faced by endangered species could provide the best platform to solve these problems in the future.

We cannot expect humankind to change overnight, but we can tell the new generations to come that wildlife is an important part of our planet and that we cannot continue to risk extinction. We have to tell them that this will not be achieved unless we immediately start to preserve and respect the environment, animals’ habitats, plants and trees – the whole ecosystem. If new generations understand, with the help of zoos, that this is a positive message: we can save species, and by doing so, save ourselves.