When you think of animals in captivity, one of two ideas come to mind. Either you picture animals happily frolicking at the zoo in an ideal, if synthetic, habitat; or you think of animals in cramped enclosures, lacking space and comfort.

Today, the animal world is under severe stress due to two global processes. Firstly, global changes such as climate change, habitat destruction, deforestation and desertification are having a significant negative impact on plant and animal life. Entire species populations are being forced to adapt or migrate to more suitable habitats, or risk facing extinction. Secondly, the ever-growing human population and ongoing globalization is resulting in dislocations of entire populations. Tourism, trade and travel has allowed invasive species to flourish, and animals are crossing country borders at an increasingly fast rate.

Captivity For Conservation

Due to this continuous movement of animal species across the globe, traditional in-situ (“in place”) conservation methods may no longer be sufficient to save threatened or endangered species. As a reaction to this realization, zoos and aquariums began to turn their attention to conservation of endangered species in the 1970s and 80s. Modern zoos adopted the slogan “captivity for conservation”. This initiative was supported by the Convention on Biodiversity, which was signed at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. In 1993, the first World Zoo Conservation Strategy was launched. It stated that ex situ (outside of natural habitats) conservation at modern zoos and aquariums is crucial at a time when species, habitats and ecosystems worldwide are threatened by human activities.

Noah’s Ark

Zoos were seen as a kind of Noah’s Ark due to its contribution to breeding of endangered species and wildlife reintroduction programs. In an ideal world, animals would live freely in their natural habitats. There would be no deforestation, no poaching, and no novel diseases transmitted by humans and livestock to game populations.

Modern zoos and aquariums can no longer be seen as animals in display cases – rather these facilities aim to promote animal conservation, educate the public on threats facing wildlife, and support wildlife research.

Most animals within zoos have been born into captivity and have never experienced their natural habitats. Many people view “the wild” as a magical and free land where wildlife can thrive, however many natural habitats are being destroyed due to human activities, such as deforestation, poaching, burning for agriculture, and the ongoing pressures from climate change; and the animals bred into captivity are often the lucky ones, spared from these ongoing threats.

How Captive Facilities Assist With Conservation

Large, flagship animals such as pandas, lions or elephants draw large crowds to zoos, helping to raise funds which can be used for conservation efforts of smaller, lesser-known species. For example, not many people might be willing to donate to a fund that protect frogs, however by supporting the zoo, funds are allocated to other conservation efforts, and zoos have in fact been instrumental in preventing the loss of global amphibian fauna.

The aim of captive breeding programs is to bolster the existing population size of a species, or to achieve a population size large enough to allow a species to be reintroduced into the wild in an area it previously inhabited. Zoos keep track of their animals through a global studbook, which assist with international captive breeding programs. These studbooks outline suitable genetic matches for breeding, to ensure genetic variation within species. Species such as the golden lion tamarin, Przewalski’s horse and the European bison have all been reliant upon captive breeding programs to avoid extinction.

Aquariums also contribute to conservation efforts through captive breeding and release programs. Many aquariums hold and breed captive populations of threatened species, which are either released back into the ocean, or held as a captive population, so if a big population collapse occurs, the captive population can be released.

Education And Research

Many countries require zoos to have an education strategy and an active education program. Zoos are often involved in school and company outreaches, and can even offer overnight stays for groups in an attempt to educate the public on the plight of the species, as well as the projects the zoo is involved in.

Research within zoos mostly assess animal behavior and welfare, as well as optimal habitat requirements. Other research projects may also look at the impact humans have on animals in captivity – both from the public as well as zookeeper interactions with the animals.

Research also studies the biological functioning of animals, as many of the animal species within zoos are naturally found in inhospitable areas.

Moral Conflicts

Zoos and aquariums have become a battleground between animal protectionists and wildlife conservationists. Animal rights groups, such as CAPS, PETA or the Born Free Foundation, claim that zoos and aquariums are housing animals in small cages for the entertainment of humans. However, enclosure design has come a long way since the 1970s, and innovative enclosure design at modern facilities closely replicate the natural habitat of the animals housed within them.

In terms of aquariums, many conservationists and animal protectionists agree – larger animals, such as cetaceans, should not be in captivity. The main benefit of aquariums is education. Aquariums allow the public to see parts of the ocean that would never be seen, as not many people have the opportunity to dive and snorkel in different regions of the world. Aquariums should solely focus on educating the public on threats facing the ocean, such as pollution and climate change, and the impact this would have on marine animals.

Zoos And Aquariums Are Desperately Needed

Zoos and aquariums are able to provide a rare opportunity to observe endangered animals, many that are facing extinction in the wild. Seeing animals up close and learning more about the threats that they are faced with may spark a passion for conservation and the environment, or may urge potential donors to open their wallets to assist with research and conservation efforts.

The IUCN concluded in its Technical Guidelines on the Management of Ex-Situ Population for Conservation (2002) document: “The reality of the current situation is that it will not be possible to ensure the survival of an increasing number of threatened taxa without effectively using a diverse range of complementary conservation approaches and techniques, including for some taxa, increasing the role and practical use of ex situ techniques.”

In an ideal world, we would not require zoos and aquariums, as the natural habitats of species would not be under threat. Unfortunately, we do not live in this ideal world, and we can only hope that the conservation and education efforts by zoos and aquariums will assist in protecting more species and raising awareness of the plights of our wildlife.