There are no less than 5,500 animal species under threat of extinction in the world and it is widely acknowledged that humans are the biggest contributors to such a decline. Consequently 190 different countries have made a pledge to conserve the most threatened species on this planet by endorsing the Convention on Biological Diversity.
In 2002, the conservation involvement of zoos became a legal duty all over Europe when the European Zoos Directive was implemented and fully implemented into the zoos in the UK.
Possibly realising a chance to disprove the increased cynicism all over the containing of wild animals within captivity, zoos presumed their role as an animal park and started to promote their newly found conservation efforts. Nonetheless, even though zoos have claimed that their conservation involvement has made a significant impact so far, there is no reliable way to evaluate their overall performance. The critical question is should we really trust their testaments to date?
In recent years, the Born Free Foundation has conducted their own analysis to evaluate the commitment to conservation in the more developed zoos in the UK. The research concentrated on the achievements of 13 independent zoos that are all recognised as the Consortium of Charitable Zoos3 (CCZ). Each zoo is financed and managed by nine British zoological societies, and the CCZ's objective is to keep and breed endangered animals and to actively support wildlife conservation projects.
The evaluation utilised various resources available to the public to include:
The EDGE of Existence programme4; The IUCN Red List of Threatened SpeciesTM1; Annually published reports and animal accounts; individual CCZ's; European Co-operative Breeding Programmes; BIAZA6 published data; EEPs and ESPs7 data from EAZA8 and the public opinion ICM Research survey.
This organisation emphasises and records data about the highest risk animals that are at risk of becoming extinct at a global level. To prevent the species claimed by the CCZ from being excluded, the researchers combined the certified Red List classes of Conservation Dependent, Vulnerable, Nearly Threatened, Severely Endangered as well as Extinct from the Wilderness underneath the name ‘Conservation Concern'.
The CCZ only keep 3.5% of all the animals that have been assessed as officially being included on the Red List. The CCZ retains almost double the amount of what has been certified as the lowest on the Red List category animals in comparison to the ‘Conservation Concern' species. Almost 62% of the CCZ animal species are classed as Least Concern and just 24.7% of animal species / 29% of individual animals are at risk (Critically Endangered, Vulnerable and Endangered on the Red List).
Around 91% of at risk mammals, and 90% of EDGE species are not being represented by the CCZ. Almost 50% of all CCZ animals are deemed as Least Concern and just 37% are classified as under threat on the Red List.
Around 95% of extinct bird species are not represented by the CCZ and around 70% are classified as the Least Concern. Only 16% of CCZ species are classed as being under threat on the official Red List.
Just 0.6% out of the total of 1,811 at risk amphibians are represented by the CCZ. 66% of CCZ animals are classified as Least Concern. Moreover, the CCZ retains no more than 1,000 amphibians.
Are UK Zoos really dedicated to animal conservation?
UK zoos affiliated too nationally and internally recognised associations like EAZA and BIAZA, where the CCZ belongs, seem to be at a distant from a lot of other zoos and claim a stronger devotion to conservation. Nevertheless, data gathered by Born Free indicates that such a claim is not easy to substantiate. 62% of CCZ animals' species come under the Least concern category and less than 25% are at high risk. Certainly, just 37% of animal species are classified as ‘Conservation Concern'. The obvious lack of interest shown by the CCZ when it comes to maintaining and further breeding at risk animals is recognised in the 2005 Manifesto for Zoos reporting limited space as a reason why they can only keep a small minority of at risk species.
Also, the limited amount of space doesn't seem to be a priority for the severely threatened taxa. For instance, amphibians, have the biggest percentage of species under threat in the wilderness, still these at risk amphibians are disproportionately represented in zoos, a mere 0.6% out of all the at risk species. In order to maximise the highest levels of animal conservation, keeping a captive population of amphibians is probably much more efficient than concentrating just on the bigger bodied animal group. This might not be as appealing publicly but it is a better option overall.
Are UK zoos dedicated to breeding at risk species?
According to UK zoos, coordinated breeding programmes of captive species were initially established to keep genetic diversity above numerous captive generations. This also maximises the animals' sustainability, especially when they are reintroduced back into the wilderness. Hence, it is a reasonable expectation to keep all the at risk species at zoos under the management of such critical programmes.
The findings show a considerable amount of endangered CCZ species were kept in groups that didn't allow for breeding to occur i.e. solitary animals, single-sex groups. The research also shows that the CCZ only classify a third of their total for breeding programmes. The study also reveals that just a quarter of the European Breeding programme species are listed as Least Concern
The study reveals that regional breeding programmes are in existence for more than 50% of the mammals at the CCZ, but only for 18% of birds and below 5% for amphibians.
To summarise, the Born Free study highlights some of the following shocking results:
- » 91.1% of mammal species under threat, and over 90% of EDGE mammal animals aren't being represented within the most progressive zoo consortiums.
- » Almost 95% of endangered bird are excluded in CCZ zoos.
- » The CCZ only keeps 11 out of a total 1,811 endangered amphibian species, this equates to a mere 0.6%.
- » The CCZ just keeps 3.5% of animals in total (birds, amphibians, mammals) that have been listed on the Red List by the IUCN Red as endangered species.
- » Over 60% of CCZ species are classified as ‘Least Concern'.
- » Just 37% of CCZ creatures are deemed as high risk.
- » The CCZ only keep a third of the species that classify to be in a breeding programme.
- » Only a quarter of CCZ animals are incorporated in breeding programmes in Europe that are categorised as Least Concern.
- » Almost 70% of the public think that zoos are spending a lot more on conservation programmes out in the wilderness compared to what actually happens. The CCZ spends approximately 4-6.7% of its yearly budget on wild conservation programmes. The public's perception seem to believe that UK zoos spend around 4 times this amount.
- » Whilst the public believe that about 41% of CCZ animal species kept in UK zoos are under threat in the wilderness, the actual figure is below 25%.
In conclusion, if the data provided above accurately represents the CCZ's dedication towards conservation, then genuine thought has to be given as to whether these types of zoos are truly an integral part of the wider conservation resolution, or whether a limited amount of financial assistance as well as some concerted human effort may be better off applied to conservation efforts of endangered animals out in the wild.