Our guest blogger Jack examines the role Zoos play in conservation and whether there are better ways to protect animals from habitat destruction and poaching.

“People love to experience animals up close and around the world millions of visitors head to the zoo every year. Their motivation is to take a look at a variety of species, ones which otherwise they might only get to see in a book or on film. Figures published by the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) in 2003 estimated that there were more than 10,000 zoos around the world and the figure has probably risen since then. However, the question needs to be asked, are zoos the best way to protect animals?

Zoos: The Pros

Zoos are run under very strict regulations and subject to regular welfare checks. In the past decades there has also been much research done on the effect of captivity on animals and many enclosures are now created as mini-habitats, to be as close as possible to how an animal would live in the wild.

A key aspect of zoos is the conservation work they undertake. There are numerous breeding programs in place whose aim is to protect those species which are facing extinction whether due to the destruction of their habitat or because of poaching.

Zoos: The Cons

However, while there are positive aspects to zoos we also need to bear in mind the negative implications of keeping animals in captivity.

– Not a Natural Habitat: However well-intentioned a zoo is to make enclosures as close as possible to a natural habitat, space and environmental limitations make that almost impossible.

– Stressed Animals: Many animals in captivity exhibit signs of stress and will often carry out repetitive behaviours such as pacing backwards and forwards or shaking their heads.

– Surplus Animals: More animals than can be kept are sometimes bred and this can lead to them being slaughtered. A recent example of this received mainstream media attention when Marius, a healthy 18 month year old giraffe, was killed at a Norwegian zoo.

– Cost of Capture: When zoos capture wild animals to be kept in captivity there can be casualties along the way. The documentary Blackfish drew attention to this when it highlighted the death of several orcas.

– Animal Escapes: Animals can also escape from zoos and if they are dangerous, or if it is not possible to re-capture them, they are sometimes shot so as not to put the public at risk

– Unpredictable Animals: Wild animals are just that, wild, and when they are in close contact with humans, it’s often difficult to predict their actions. A recent case highlighted this when a young boy fell into a gorilla enclosure at Cincinnati Zoo. There was much conjecture over whether the animal was protecting the child or posed a risk, but ultimately Jambo, the male gorilla, was shot and killed.

An Alternative to Zoos: Safaris

An alternative to zoos, and one which means you can truly experience animals in their natural habitat, is heading out on safari. The only prohibitive factor can be cost but outweighing that is the many benefits safaris offer.

Tourism can sometimes come at a cost to the natural world but safaris are ‘responsible tourism’ in that they help support an infrastructure which then ensures the animals stay safe in their environment. The safaris help local communities as they support jobs and draw in tourists, who then spend money whilst on holiday.

Safaris are also a cruelty-free way to see animals in their natural habitat. Many of the safari game parks employ people to guard against poachers and this helps to keep wildlife numbers up and protect them from extinction.

For children particularly, going on safari can instill in them a love for the natural world from an early age. They can watch animals, with no bars or glass standing between them, and they can see how animals behave when they are free. A safari also brings children into contact with other cultures and assists them to learn about geography, history and biology. Some of these children will grow up to have a passion for conservation.

How to Get Involved With Wildlife Conservation

The dire situation for some wildlife species means there is a desperate need for more people to become involved with conservation efforts. If this is something which appeals to you, then as a first step you can connect with conservation organizations and read more around the subject. If it’s something you want to dedicate your career to, choose your subjects wisely at school and university. One of the best ways to gain valuable work experience is to take a gap year where you travel and volunteer learning about conservation at ground level.

For all animal lovers it is important to be careful about how and where we choose to see wildlife. Look into the work which each zoo and wildlife park does and head only to those who you feel are serving animals well. We can each take a stand, on however small a scale, even if we are only voting with our wallet.”