I think that some people struggle with the idea of zoos and conservation. In some ways I can see it’s easy to lump all places that ‘display’ animals as inherently bad.
To some, the idea of any animal in captivity is abhorrent, but with natural habitat shrinking and poaching and wildlife crime rife – we need zoos and captive bred tigers as ambassadors to inspire people to protect their wild counterparts.
Zoos are major contributors to conservation, not just in terms of financial support. It goes beyond that, there are some 700 MILLION people who visit zoos annually. To some of these people the closest to wildlife they may have seen is a pigeon in the street. We all know tigers are a majestic and charismatic species, and yes we can learn this from documentaries and books. But, I can still remember the first time I saw a big cat – being close enough to hear one chuffing, to see their breath on a chilly morning. It’s an unparalleled experience, one that led me to want to work in conservation.
One of the major roles of a good zoo is to make sure that visitors leave with an understanding of what is happening to these animals in the wild, and, what they can do to change the way they view the state of our planet and consume its resources.
One way that you can tell a ‘good zoo’ is to look for an accreditation logo on their website. The highest level of accreditation comes from WAZA, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, but depending on your region there are national bodies that zoos can join. EAZA for Europe, BIAZA in the UK, AZA in the United States and ZAA in Australasia. (This is not a comprehensive list, a quick google search should help you locate your local association!)
Each of these bodies, have codes of practice and responsibilities that they expect each of their member zoos to have. These codes can differ slightly but can be summarised under these key areas; animal management and welfare, conservation, education, research & operations.
Animal management & welfare
Accredited zoos should provide high standards of care to the animals in their collections. This means ensuring living space stimulates each species natural environment and behaviour.
Good zoos contribute to conserving species in the wild, and they can do this in a number of ways, which we have detailed in previous articles. As far as accreditation goes, good zoos are generally expected to participate in managed breeding programmes, to ensure a healthy captive population as a backup for wild populations. Additionally good zoos are responsible for promoting and raising funds for conservation projects.
With such high visitor numbers zoos are in a powerful position to educate. Most of the accreditation bodies recommend informative signage around enclosures, talks, presentations as well as availability of direct educational services.
Sharing of knowledge between zoos in encouraged and annually each accreditation body run conferences and seminars so that various zoo departments can meet and share information.
Good zoos should practise and promote sustainability throughout the site, and provide a safe and comfortable environment for their visitors.
These are just brief introductions to the minimum codes and practices that good zoos adhere to, and many go above and beyond these guidelines! There is a wealth of information online that you can access, below is some recommended reading should you wish to learn more.
21st Century Tiger