Zoos and aquariums: The ‘front line of conservation’?

Female northern white-cheeked gibbon, Lincoln Park Zoo

Female northern white-cheeked gibbon in Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. By enabling captive breeding of endangered species and sharing conservation messages with the general public, accredited zoos and aquariums can do a lot to support and improve wildlife conservation efforts. (© Heather Paul/Flickr Creative Commons)

The zoo in your city may be thousands of miles from the savannahs of Africa — but its effect on wildlife conservation may be many times greater.

At least one conservationist says that researchers and staff at the world’s zoos and aquariums — not just scientists in the field — hold the key to assuring the future of wildlife conservation.

“[Zoos and aquariums] have this incredible responsibility and power to actually change the way many of us think of conservation and wildlife,” said M. Sanjayan, executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International (CI).

The massive public audience of these institutions gives them influence, Sanjayan said in a recent keynote at the annual conference of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. “There are 183 million people [a year] who come through your institutions,” he said. “That’s an important responsibility that you have, and that gives you enormous power.”

Sharing highlights from his career as a researcher and journalist, Sanjayan spoke about a shift in the focus of conservation from wildlife to people.

Edited highlights of his speech:

On a shift in the idea of conservation

When I was in graduate school, we were starting to understand the idea of biodiversity. We realized that the world was dripping with life … and yet there was something missing from the picture. It’s humans. And it’s a somewhat glaring omission …

Look at the documentary “Planet Earth,” which was beautiful and amazing, [but] you’d watch it and realize there were no people in it. If you’re an alien, and you get that DVD box set for Christmas … and you’d put it in your player and you watched it and you thought, ‘That planet? I want to go visit there,’ and you got in your spaceship and you came down here, you’d be in for a great big surprise — because we’re all here!

… [Conservationists] wanted to study wildlife, we wanted to manage nature. But at the end of the day, what we really needed to do was manage people. Nature can take care of itself; it wasn’t managing wildlife that was so important, we had to manage people.

CI’s Nature Is Speaking campaign makes that point: Nature will get along fine without us, but people need nature… The poster child for climate change is no longer the polar bear — now it really is us. That’s a great shift in focus. In the last IPCC report [on climate change], for example, it really puts the spotlight on humans. [It says] that wildlife will find a way … but humans, we’re really in trouble.

Further reading

On the power of ‘animal selfies’

CI has a network of camera traps we use to monitor what’s happening in tropical forests around the world. Information is collected in real-time, and data is also analyzed in near real-time and made available publicly. So anyone can go to the website, query the data and look at trends.

We were looking at [the African golden cat] in one site in Uganda and noticed that their numbers had been going down along certain areas of the park. The immediate question raised by park managers was: Is it because of poaching? But they found prey animals were doing fine, and poaching was unlikely. An overlay of visitors who were coming to the park to observe gorillas revealed that the cats were selectively avoiding gorilla viewing areas. As a result, the park varied the way in which people access the gorillas to avoid overusing one particular part of the trail system. That dialogue happened very quickly because the data was available and people were able to use it in an open-source way.

On zoo wildlife breeding programs

It’s extremely challenging to breed pandas, but the Chinese seem to have cracked the code — as well as some notable successes at the National Zoo in D.C. and the San Diego Zoo amongst others. Their breeding facilities look different from the breeding facilities here — and they smell different as well. You can really see the effort they’ve put into getting to know the pandas and understand their behavior. And as a result, they’ve managed to start putting pandas back in the wild.

Think about how audacious that is: Here they are trying to breed an endangered animal that’s very difficult to breed and then release them in a country that has over a billion people where the habitat is extraordinarily fragmented, where even in the wild their survival rate is probably pretty low. Yet that’s exactly what they’ve accomplished. It’s an extraordinary story that needs to be celebrated.

So, it’s another example of how zoos and aquariums have played an important role in both bringing the message [of conservation] to the general public and also getting us to the point where we’re able to reintroduce animals as exotic and challenging as the giant panda into the wild. If that doesn’t leave you with an enormous sense of hope, I don’t know what will. (Watch Sanjayan’s entire speech at the annual conference of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums below.)

On the importance of zoos to conservation

A lot of us in the field think that we’re on the front lines of conservation; but we are wrong. It’s the zoos and aquariums who are on the front lines, because they’re the ones having face-to-face interactions with people every day — people who can change the direction of our planet.

Remember, virtually every kid gets some exposure to a zoo or aquarium and when they visit the experience can be magical, transformative even. Kids leave not wanting to be the animal but wanting to be the zookeeper. That was my dream as a child, wanting to have that front line experience with something so fantastic. So use that moment to inspire a lifetime of passion for nature, for wild creatures and the places that need to be protected.

Dealing with conservation is about dealing with people, not about dealing with animals. You’re the ones who get to meet the people who make the decision, to directly influence the kids to grow up to make the choices that they make. There are 183 million people [a year] who come through your institutions. … That’s an important responsibility that you have, and that gives you enormous power. If each person gives just one dollar to conservation, that is more money going to international conservation than most of the biggest conservation organizations on the planet.

Focus also on living up to your mission. Virtually every accredited zoo and aquarium has a mission steeped in conservation but understandably the operational side of running a zoo, the cost of care, food, staff, visitor experience tends to suck attention. The best institutions — say Monterey Bay Aquarium — put their mission first and foremost. If you put your mission first you will also deal with the operations but if you only focus on the operations, you will never get around to the mission. And right now, with conservation and the planet in peril, mission and the ability to reach millions of adults and children in a personal way matters most.

M. Sanjayan is an executive vice president and senior scientist at CI. Follow him on Twitter. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.


  1. Pingback: What are zoos for ? » General Zoo Discussion

  2. Verna Dingman says

    I always thought this was a good idea until it was noted we breed them in the Zoos and when we get one too many the Government gives out linceses to so out and kill them or else the zoo inself kills the animal because they are overcrowded. ANIMALS of all kind have been mistreated for years just when is enough/enough?

  3. Phyllis Dupret says

    The photos and information in this article are extraordinary…thank you for providing all that you do……………..

  4. Leland Brun says

    I worked part time at a zoo for awhile. During that time an attempt was made to artificially inseminate one of the female elephants there. The resulting baby elephant died during labor and had to be surgically aborted. The poor elephant had no prior knowledge of pregnancy and labor as it would have in a natural herd. Also, it would be very much more fit for labor by walking hundreds of miles instead of standing still most of the time in a small, under one acre zoo yard. The notion that zoos can save endangered wildlife is flawed. Far better to put our resourced into saving habitats worldwide and reversing our own destructive population growth.

  5. Karen Pittenger says

    Major flaw in zoos: they withhold perspective. Every zoo needs several displays throughout them about the homo-sapien. Where the homo-sapien lives, how it lives, what its needs are, what notable behaviors it displays. The Danish zoo should dissect humans in public if they think it is educational to dissect animals for the public.

  6. mark gillono says

    zoo’s are animal prisons where human interests and profits are put ahead of the interests of the non-humans who zoo’s claim to care about. sanctuaries, on the other hand, exist to serve and protect non-human animals and where their best interests are put first and foremost. how many zoo’s sell aging non-human animals to canned hunts or to be murdered so their bodies can be consumed in order to make room for younger and more profitable “exhibits”? it is also very telling that zoo’s sell the flesh and milk of brutalized farmed animals in their concession stands.

    here is a great article outlining the inherent suffering and abuse which occur as standard practice in the vast majority of zoos:

  7. Tonia Broe says

    I am appalled that someone who claims to be a conservationist is spreading false information about the assistance that zoos offer endangered species. Most animals imprisoned in zoos are not endangered. They are merely exploited to make money. Stop spreading these false claims. Now that I know CI is in bed with the zoos, you won’t see any donations coming from me.

  8. A Pragmatist says

    @mark gillano, your information is out of date for professional, AZA and EAZA zoos in the US and Europe. Focus your attention on roadside zoos in the US and many of those that are not well regulated in developing countries and do not group them all together. They are different.

    Teaching future generations about the importance of protecting the nature world is not easily done without emotional connection and education about the impact of humans on wildlife and the environment. This is not well achieved with the “virtual” experience that TV and computers provide. They are no substitute for first hand experience and connection to build empathy and ultimately action to protect animals and the environment.

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