The contribution of Australian zoos to the conservation of Australian wildlife

A project undertaken at The School of Animal Studies, University of Queensland, and supervised by A Tribe

Despite their popularity and their place in our tourism history, in recent years zoos have undergone considerable change in both their structure and function. Whilst remaining attractive places to visit, they have seen their survival as being dependent upon their changing direction and becoming a more relevant part of today’s society. In response, zoos have developed three important justifications for keeping wild animals in captivity: conservation, education and research. Zoos now market themselves not only as places of entertainment and recreation, but also as important conservators of wildlife. However, in so doing they face the dual challenge of keeping themselves relevant to public expectations, while also finding a useful and credible niche in the field of conservation of biodiversity.

This project investigated the role of Australian zoos in conservation, and evaluated the effectiveness of their policies and actions. In particular it assessed: 1) the nature and extent of the conservation activities of Australian zoos; 2) the money spent in pursuing these conservation activities; 3) the effectiveness of these activities and the role of modern zoos as perceived by the zoo visitors; 4) the contribution of Australian zoos compared with their overseas counterparts.

Information was collected in three ways: zoo visitor surveys, zoo conservation staff surveys, and interviews with key zoo personnel. The zoos targeted in Australia were the ten largest whilst in the UK, information was collected from London, Jersey, Bristol and Edinburgh zoos.

It is apparent that the major contribution of zoos to conservation comes through their ex situ actions, including education programmes, and their captive breeding, management and display of wildlife. However, recently, zoos have also become more involved with in situ conservation work. In Australia, this is predominantly through local species recovery programmes for endangered species in cooperation with state government authorities and local communities. In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, zoos play a greater role in developing countries, as partners in local conservation programmes and initiatives. By undertaking such work, zoos are gradually transforming themselves from traditional, static, animal displays, to interactive, entertaining conservation centres which bridge the gap between their captive collections and free-range wildlife. However, such activities are expensive, and a major obstacle for zoos has always been to strike a balance between commercial success and the development of conservation credibility. This research indicates that while visitors believe that their zoos have a significant responsibility for wildlife conservation, they are largely unaware of the extent of that role; the main reasons for visiting were to “see lots animals” and to “have a good day out”. Consequently there is still a lack of knowledge of how zoo participation in conservation affects levels of visitation, and about the interest and satisfaction of visitors with this role. Yet with a more educated and discerning public, zoos must endeavour to understand and meet the expectations of their visitors if they are to achieve financial viability. For an industry committed to supporting conservation, it is clear that more information is needed about the role that conservation can play in supporting the industry.

Figure 1. Melbourne Zoo - 1893.

Figure 2. London Zoo - 1905.

Figure 3. Andrew Tribe with zoo signs.

Figure 4. Elephants sleeping.

Figure 5. An educational talk on crocodiles.

Figure 6. An educational talk on snakes.

Figure 7. Penguins at Bristol Zoo.

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