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Apr 18, 2016

Challenging Our Horizons

By Dr Kirsten Pullen
18 April 2016

It was with mixed feeling that I sat down to watch yesterday’s BBC Horizon programme which set out to analyse whether there is a future for zoos as research and knowledge regarding animal welfare has grown. I was hopeful that it would lead to informed debate by featuring both the challenges faced by the zoo community as well as detailing the successes and significant changes that have been made in recent years. But I was also apprehensive that it may have a hidden agenda, not because of their inflammatory choice of title, but because we were not invited to provide our voice to the programme, which as the national association representing the best zoos and aquariums in the UK and Ireland was disappointing.

However, it must be acknowledged that many of the issues that were raised are valid ones that need to be discussed. Indeed, one of the accusations levelled at zoos was that they needed to listen more and respond in an informed and research-driven way. Discussions about how we do this, and progress in this area were already happening long before this programme was put together, but we recognise that the communication of this aspect of our work has not been at the level needed.

The situation with the elephants has sparked a lot of debate but it has provided us with an opportunity to highlight that zoos have been listening and are being pro-active in this area. The programme provided a clear statement of the challenge set by UK Government to improve elephant welfare, and a spokesperson gave their personal view on whether it was likely to succeed. However, what it failed to show was any recognition of the voluntary steps taken by BIAZA to establish a multi-stakeholder workgroup focussing on elephant welfare as a result of the issues raised by this research. We recognise that public opinion is important but it is equally important that we approach this in an evidence-led way with any outcomes based on robust data.

There are many different ways in which zoos tackle conservation, so it was with a sense of déjà vu to see that the programme solely focussed on re-introduction and the Ark concept. Certainly, re-introductions are difficult and there are species where they may not be the most suitable conservation technique. This could be due to species biology, political stability or socio-economic situations amongst other reasons, but it is still recognised that interventions such as re-introductions can be useful and there are many examples where success has been achieved.

However, zoos and aquariums have for a very long time not been putting all their eggs into the reintroduction basket! Our members support conservation projects in so many ways, the most obvious being the unique funding stream that is generated by engaging with our visitors and ploughed directly in to established projects. But even more significant is the number of projects run by our zoos in the field, employing project staff to undertake conservation science, habitat and species assessment, protection actions and engagement with local communities. This ranges from overseas work with species such as elephants in Assam (Chester Zoo) to our own native red kites (Hawk Conservancy Trust) to marine conservation projects such as manta rays in the Red Sea (The Deep), to name just a few.

Beyond that is the substantial impact of the translation of the expertise and technical skills developed in our zoos and aquariums to situations in the wild. For example, zoo developed veterinary expertise has been utilised in situations as diverse as great ape projects in the Cameroon (Twycross Zoo and Bristol Zoo Gardens) to delivering anaesthesia and health checks to tigers in Sumatra and Russia (Wildlife Vets International) and Asiatic lions in India (ZSL).

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has recognised the validity of zoos and aquariums as conservation organisations. Several zoos host Species Specialist Groups and their contribution to this important work is active and growing.

I was perhaps most disappointed with the claim that there is no evidence for the positive education or engagement of the public through our zoos and aquariums. Admittedly, this is a relatively new area of research and we, like many other institutions such as museums and science centres, are developing ways to fully assess our engagement activities. From this early stage research we can already see that zoos play an important role in educating the public on the subject of conservation. What is more difficult is turning this knowledge into positive action, a challenge faced by many conservation organisations. But we hope that increasing partnerships with social scientists will help us find a way forward. Despite this, we cannot underestimate the important role zoos can play in inspiring the next generation as well as offering an un-daunting environment for children to engage with science.

In this year as we celebrate our 50th anniversary we have an opportunity to have meaningful conversations both within our community and with the public, to both challenge and inspire us to drive the continuous evolution of our zoos and aquariums. I, for one, am clear in my mind that modern zoological establishments have a significant role to play over the coming years in conservation, education and inspiration.

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