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Conservation Zoos

Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years of work within zoos.

Conservation Zoos

There are many zoos today which claim to be playing a part in conservation of species. The word 'conservation' is seemingly most often used by those zoos which insist on breeding the likes of White Tigers or White Lions which have absolutely no role in conservation whatsoever.

Within the zoo world, conservation is about the long term management of species. It is all about population genetics and maintenance of viable captive populations with the aim or re-introduction at some point in the future. Not today, not next week or next year but looking one hundred years ahead.

No zoo can do it alone. Viable populations needs numbers and numbers needs management. Inter zoo cooperation then is absolutely essential. Zoos must agree to bide by the directions of the studbook holder and species coordinator.


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Not Breeding

In a 'Conservation Zoo' the keeping of animals is as much about Not breeding as it is about breeding. Not breeding is important. There are only a limited number of spaces for any given species in captivity. it is essential to manage these spaces and ensure they are utilised by those animals needed within the breeding programme. This may mean keeping pairs or groups of only genetically important males or females. Contraception will also be used or separation at times of 'heat'.

Not all zoos want to keep X or Y species. Available spaces, budgets and staff all play a part. Moving into the keeping of a new species means agreeing to the guidance offered by the species coordinator and to actually work with them as an active participant within the breeding programme.

Zoos like to breed animals. Baby animals make cute photos and draw in the visitors. Visitors mean money and money means so many things. Breeding too can mean money and zoos are often tempted. Hence we have situations as with 'Knut' the Polar Bear.

Hand rearing is so often a mistake. It is very difficult to integrate hand reared animals back with their own kind. Even if it is successful they may never breed because they do not know what to do. Artificial insemination? Yes it can be done but more often the progeny have to be hand reared too and so a vicious pointless circle is created. Utilisation of spaces in captivity by 'non contributing' animals means that valuable animals will not be permitted to breed.

Just this sort of situation exists with the White Tigers and Lions. These 'freaks of nature' are taking up so much space in captivity that could be used for genuine conservation.



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Humboldt Penguins

Humboldt Penguins are very rare in the wild. The numbers have decreased over the past twenty years.

Happily Humboldt Penguins are relatively easy to breed. They lay two eggs but usually one chick will die. Many zoos will remove one egg and hand rear a chick. In a good colony the numbers will rapidly increase. There are stubooks for Humboldt Penguins. It is a managed population. There is though an unmanaged population. This is held within that huge number of zoos that exist outside. The zoos that are purely profit motivated. To my mind the Bad zoos. They may claim Conservation....but how can they be? If these zoos were in the remotest bit interested or involved in conservation then they would be members of the breeding programme.

In the past the Humboldt Penguin Coordinator had advised that breeding should cease in genetically overrepresented colonies. Sensible action giving consideration for the well being of the species as a whole, the complete studbook managed captive population. Easily done too. A small pin hole in each egg laid. The opportunity to breed and rear for real will come later.

But no. Some zoos want chicks. Well they look good, draw the people in. At the end of the day there is a ready market for chicks in the Bad zoos outside of the official breeding programme. Zoos who do such a thing are not Conservation Zoos. They are anti- conservation!

Managed chicks disappear into an unnmanaged population. If it stopped there it would not be so bad but such animals have a habit of appearing again either by way of purchase and exchange after several moves outside. These are genetically 'dirty'. From parents which were already over represented. Creeping in the back door they can cause great damage to a breeding programme.

I have only used Humboldt Penguins as an example. There are many others. It will take many years before The European Otter population is sorted out because of mistakes in the past. It demonstrates the importance of not breeding.

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Sometimes overlooked

Within the UK a Zoo Licence requires that the zoo is an active participant of breeding programmes for any of the population managed species which it holds. It is sometimes overlooked but that means it must go through the Species Coordinator before breeding, obtaining or disposing. It is one of the most frustrating part of a Coordinators work that this is ignored. The next most frustrating part is having participants ignoring a 'no breeding' request and then being asked to find homes for the (over represented genetically) progeny.

It does mean though that if a zoo is holding a managed species and not participating then, in theory, its zoo licence could be revoked. Without the licence the collection would not be allowed to have paying visitors. It would inevitably close. Non Conservation Zoos should close.

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A Conservation Zoo

A Conservation Zoo:

  • Will be an active participant in all breeding programmes which are up and running for those associated species in their collection. They will abide by the guidance given by the studbook holder. They will notify the Species Coordinator of any births/deaths/arrivals or departures. There will be no arrivals or departures without the prior approval of the Species Co-ordinator.
  • Will not waste valuable captive space on freaks of nature. Will not maintain groups of white/lutino or other such unnatural beasts or hybrids.
  • Will never release any species into the wild without rigorous adherence to the guidelines.
  • Will never release any species into the wild which has not naturally bred and reared young in captivity. (Failure here could cause terrible harm to existing wild populations).
  • Conservation Zoos know and appreciate the fact that mother (natural) rearing is best.
  • Conservation Zoos do not have shows or displays which have no educational or conservation message.
  • Conservation Zoos do not have 'pose with the animal' photography sessions.
  • Conservation Zoos actually contribute to helping wild populations.
  • Conservation Zoos have actual, genuine, education programmes.
  • Conservation Zoos keep updated.

I could go on. Look for signs in the zoos you visit. If they claim the animals to be threatened, rare or endangered check whether they are the member of a breeding programme. It is not enough that they are breeding the species because perhaps they should not be.


Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on May 02, 2010:

Not available - you will have to read more of my hubs and make up your own mind. In my opinion good zoos should stay open and bad zoos should close. Good zoos do put money into ex situ and in situ conservation. Bad zoos lie and line their pockets.

Not available on May 02, 2010:

I really really want to know whether money from zoos goes into conservation. It is for an essay which is due next week so please help!!!!! I also want to know whether it is right for zoos to stay open.

Mark Jones from South Africa on July 18, 2009:

You are right,maybe I'm just in the wrong zoo. I've seen too much inbreeding and crossbreeding going on here and cannot understand how it can be allowed. I also need to keep my mouth shut or risk losing my job of course.

I like what you are doing,just signed up to your digest a couple days ago,so I reckon we'll be talking more in the future,

Take care Peter

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on July 18, 2009:

Great Uncle Bill - It is a two way operation. We definitely have to protect the wild and the animals within it. With international zoo cooperation the captive gene pool will widen and there will be less of the size and other problems you have noted (though some of this may be other than genetic causes). Ideally a little bit of wild blood will help now and again but we should try not to rely on it. Cooperation is the key. Zoos as the amnbassadors of the folks back home. Hopefully familiarity will breed the opposite to contempt and the wild will be respected.

But No...Zoos should not be purely educational...they should be much much more.

Best Wishes,


Mark Jones from South Africa on July 18, 2009:

This is very good & very true. I work in a big zoo right now but have come from working in the wild in South Africa.

Things are difficult for me to understand here. We don't have the gene availability & diversity that animals have in the wild which is why things like rhinos,ellies,antelopes,giraffes etc are smaller than they are in the wild. If these are going back to the wild then surely this is not good for the gene pool.

Surely we,as zoo's,should concentrate on having our species as purely educational tools and then us(zoo's),as well as wild organisations should concentrate in protecting their habitat and them as species.

This is where our governments should be on the band wagon,properly fighting things like illegal logging.

Marianne Kellow from SE Thailand on July 17, 2009:

Really excellent and informative.

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