The Role of Zoos in Conservation

Humanity has always been obsessed with the exotic, and zoos originated as just that. Early zoos collected wild animals from around the globe to showcase the strange and unusual creatures from the far corners of the earth. Welfare and husbandry were severely lacking, but so was biological knowledge, and people thought the world and its animals were limitless. Today, zoos have had to modernize to keep up with changing social and cultural values. Modern zoos generally have exemplary husbandry and welfare standards, and more and more they project themselves as pinnacles of conservation. With wildlife and their habitats on the edge of extinction around the globe, many species now occur much more abundantly in captivity than in the wild. I see zoos struggling to keep up with a culture that is more and more aware of animals and their plight, and I see both the truths and flaws in their claims.


Zoos serve as a sanctuary for the thousands of animals injured, abused or otherwise damaged by the booming captive wildlife trade. Bears from roadside circuses in Romania, primates from wildlife smuggling busts, or tigers bred for pets – there are far more wild animals that are unable to be released back into the wild than there should be, and they need safe homes where they can live out their lives free from exploitation. Many zoos exist mainly for this reason, and I applaud that. A modern zoo is the best case scenario for a captive bred wild animal.


Zoos are here to education the next generation so that they will grow up inspired by wildlife and learn to respect it. This is often true, and there are many exemplary zoos and aquariums around the world doing just this. Emphasis is on biological facts, threats to wild populations, and what actions you can take to make a difference. However, many zoos are not so exemplary, and the experience they present is little better than exploitation and entertainment, with no educational value whatsoever.


Zoos support a number of in situ conservation projects and contribute to valuable research and practical conservation efforts worldwide. To the zoos that do this, again I applaud you. This should be a fundamental aspect of any zoo or aquarium, as keeping wild animals in captivity should directly benefit those wild populations. Otherwise, what’s the point of all these animals being ambassadors for their species?

Genetic Backup Plan

Zoos are there to maintain the genetic vigour of a species as it dwindles in the wild, so that one day they can be reintroduced. I hear this one said a lot, to justify the extensive captive breeding industry as well, and it is largely a lie. The sort of lie everyone wishes were true, but isn’t. For starters, very few species are able to be released if raised in captivity, especially large predators and highly social animals. Research has shown that animals bred in captivity are significantly less likely to survive once released than their wild counterparts (Mathews et al. 2005). To date, very few reintroductions using captive bred animals have been successful.

Many zoos practice unethical breeding, such as producing white tigers and white lions. While these bring in crowds and make money, it directly contradicts what the zoos claim to be doing. These colour variations are not separate species, they are rare to nonexistent in the wild. Furthermore, they only occur when intensive inbreeding takes place, often causing deformities due to deleterious alleles. The Endangered Wildlife Trust of South Africa issued a statement condemning breeding rare colour variations in captivity, as it has no conservation value and serves only to weaken the genetic diversity of a species.

I personally feel that if zoos exist to give safe places to trafficked, injured or otherwise homeless wild animals, to education people and to raise funds, then that is a good thing. If the animals held there can actually serve their species in the wild in the ways mentioned, then zoos have value. However, of all the zoos, wildlife parks and aquariums out there, the majority do not do these things. They are simply exploitation, offering up an experience with the exotic for a price, just like the first zoos did. This serves no one but the business. It educates no one, it fails to help a single wild animal, it contributes nothing to research, and ultimately it nurtures a culture of disrespect towards wildlife. It teaches the next generation that wildlife is there for their entertainment. And I think (I hope) we have evolved past that.


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Stephanie Higgins

Stephanie Higgins

I am a professional ecologist, and hold degrees in both photography and zoology. I grew up in Canada, and have worked on research projects in Madagascar, South Africa and Scotland. I have worked in zoos as well and for consultancies, as well as on conservation projects.
Stephanie Higgins

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