It seems to me that there are three ways that zoos might be able to help conservation. These are:
- Educate the public about conservation
- Breed wild animals and then release them into the wild
- Employ scientists who do research and who run studies which enhances our knowledge of the wild animal species which in turn benefits conservation.
Educate the Public
My personal view is that zoos do not educate the public on conservation. Quite the contrary. They educate the public to view wild animals as exhibits in a show. People get used to seeing animals in zoos and kids may even believe that they belong in zoos. They mislead the public. Of course, a zoo might present some information about conservation but I would doubt very much whether this information is absorbed by the public except for a tiny minority. Zoos entertain the public. Animals are used for entertainment. I don’t think this is the right basis or ethos upon which the concept of conservation can be promoted.
Release Zoo Animals into the Wild
Let’s take Tigers. We are told that there are about 10,000 tigers in captivity. Take a guess as to how many have been released back into the wild in the past 50 years. The answer is maybe three or four. Are you surprised? I’m not. It does not work. The truth is that captive tigers simply cannot be re-wilded. Tara was a tiger who was let loose in Utah protest, India. She ate 24 people. I’ve also heard about tigers being moved around from reserve to reserve and this does not work very well either. It’s like relocating feral cats, that doesn’t work very well either.
As for breeding cats in zoos, this doesn’t work very well either! Cats do not breed well in zoos. They’re too stressed. They’re too unhappy. They don’t want to procreate. Let’s just conclude that in terms of conservation releasing zoo animals into the wild is not really a great option.
The more common process is to take animals from the wild and put them into zoos because they won’t breed in captivity. In other words animals going in the opposite direction.
Employ Scientists to Do Studies
Yes, scientists can do studies and they can help in conservation. Although I do recall one scientist who poisoned tigers inadvertently. He was therefore doing the exact opposite to conservation.
Also, I think by now we know enough about most of the iconic animals including tigers and lions and the other big cats to be able to protect and preserve them in the wild if we wished and if we had commitment to do so. Conservation these days is not about knowledge of wild species but about funding and commitment to make conservation real and effective. There simply is not the global will to do it. This is borne out by the constant decline in numbers of lions and cheetahs and tigers et cetera living in the wild.
If people want to help tigers they shouldn’t go to the zoo. They should shoot a few poachers; poachers who kill tigers for their body parts so they can be fed to rich Chinese businessman because of some inane and absurd belief that it improves their sexual prowess.
Also if you want to help tigers you should try and get the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer to persuade Chinese men that there are better ways to get a stiffly than to eat a tiger’s penis.
Zoos don’t really care about the animals. They care about making money. There are far too many examples of zoos failing, both private zoos and those run by companies. Some of the smaller zoos are pathetically poor. And those in developing countries are often abysmal with a horrendous disregard for animal welfare. Then we have the not too uncommon attacks by tigers on zoo workers (at small zoos) or visitors (at private zoos). Zoos are a recipe for disaster in my opinion. They are a model of failure. They tell the world that we have failed to preserve and protect wild animals living in the wild.
If zoos wanted to really be effective in conservation they would close their doors and go out into the wild and do some actual, on-the-ground work. They could start by talking to the Chinese government and local authorities in China to convince them to ban the consumption of tiger body parts.
PS-I have taken a very general view in this short article. There may be some particular examples where certain individual species have been protected by the work of zoo staff. I’m sure there are examples of this. However, I’m taking a general and personal viewpoint. If anybody wants to add to this and provide some detail they are most welcome.