Zoo administrators try and justify their existence, in part, by saying that they do valuable conservation work. This is highly misleading. The Times newspaper states that only 3% of zoo expenditure goes on conservation and only 10% of the animals held in British zoos are endangered species.
Research by the Born Free Foundation found that only 1% of endangered animals have been introduced back into the wild by zoos and that 95% of animals in zoos are not endangered. This is a greater figure than as stated by the Times newspaper.
The fact of the matter is that the first zoos were created to entertain people and that is still their overriding objective. And as wild species become evermore endangered in the wild it becomes harder to obtain animals to present to the public in zoos. If a visitor knows about the failures of conservation, zoos are painful places to visit.
In America, Paul Boyle, senior vice president for conservation and education at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) said that they cannot fly in the face of the fact that people go to zoos for a family outing. He also states that only 1% of zoo budgets (I presume that he is referring to America) goes to conservation. He wants zoos to get to 3% but there is no minimum requirement for zoos accredited to AZA.
The Wildlife Conservation Network and Jane Goodall Institute currently receive 0.1% of international philanthropy.
Many zoos think that because they are breeding an endangered animal they are involved in conservation. However, this does not contribute to protecting that animal species in the wild. It may be the opposite: presenting the idea that all is well in the wild. Some zoos send staff members into the field as a away, they think, of supporting conservation but perhaps these are more like vacation trips than serious conservation attempts.
I believe that the truth of the matter is that the paying public visiting zoos are, in general, simply disinterested in wildlife conservation. They’re not concerned enough about it to make demands upon zoos. This is in part due to a lack of education on the subject.
There’s far more money ($15 billion annually) in trading the body parts of rare species and living animals than there is in protecting these animals. This is because business (and this is truly big business) is far more powerful than organisations involved in conservation. It’s a no contest situation.
The way to tackle conservation is to tackle the businesses which exploit and destroy wildlife for financial gain. These businesses need to be closed through government regulations which are strictly enforced. That will not happen because the businesses are largely in Asia where animal welfare laws might exist but are weakly enforced. This is not a politically correct view but it is accurate.
In fairness, some zoos do play an important role in conservation. Some zoos also highlight the need to conservation and no doubt educate visitors but it is not enough, far from it.
You cannot ignore, also, the unnaturalness of the typical zoo habitat (despite best efforts) and how some of them are simply diabolical. We hear about zoos in the West and even those dramatically fail the animals sometimes such as the one founded by David Gill in Cumbria, UK (all zoos fail the animals in truth). We hear little in the online news media about zoos in Asia. The conditions in these zoos is likely to be poorer because of a lack of real concern for animal welfare at government level.
I have said it before, but it bears being repeated, many wild cat species do not breed in zoos. This makes keeping them in zoos almost unsustainable unless zoos take them from the wild which is counter productive in terms of conservation.
And do zoos in Russia keep tropical animals and do zoos in Australia keep animals who are meant to live in Arctic conditions? More unnaturalness I would argue.
Zoos are based on a model or concept (the presentation of wild and exotic animals to the public) which is unsuited to conservation. Nowadays the model is an expression of failure of humans to protect the wild species on the planet.