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What is the role for zoos and aquaria in conservation?

October 21, 2010

Modern zoos are an increasingly influential voice in global biodiversity conservation.  Earlier this year, the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) released a video outlining their vision for the role of their members in conservation programmes:

There are many arguments for the value of such ex situ conservation.  For many people, zoos provide an important source of engagement and education about the natural world.  The revenues raised by zoos may be also be reinvested in in situ conservation projects – see for example the Zoological Society of London’s conservation outreach programmes.

The accumulated knowledge and expertise held by many zoos can also be put to use in breeding and reintroduction programmes for species otherwise endangered or extinct in the wild (for example, see the La Palma pupfish –  this month’s entry into the Cabinet of Freshwater Curiosities.

European otters at London Zoo. Photo: Cyril Blazy (http://www.fotopedia.com/users/blazouf / Creative Commons)

However, critics argue that zoos only foster a partial and unrealistic public engagement with nature – prioritising only the most charismatic and exotic species.  Similarly, there is a concern that the over reliance on zoos as the last habitat for many endangered species may channel attention and funds away from the conservation of their natural habitats.

There are an increasing number of ex situ programs involving zoos and aquaria targeted at the conservation of freshwater species.  For example, the IUCN Turtle Survival Alliance created a network of zoos, aquaria and private breeders to maintain viable populations of freshwater turtles, with a view to reintroductions in the wild.  Similarly, Amphibian Ark is a collaborative project which uses captive breeding to ‘rescue’ dwindling populations of endangered amphibians.

What role should zoos and aquaria play in the global conservation movement?  How far do they lead to a positive and productive public engagement with nature?

As ever, we’re keen to hear your views.

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