Beyond the Imagination: Zoos in Conservation Chapter 1: The Hope for Nature

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

Zoos across the globe are entertaining humans from centuries alongside caged animals. There are numerous organisms in zoos, from tiny frogs and newts to gigantic tigers and bears. All are behind the bars thus we could enjoy their presence. In early times, zoos were a mere source of amusement and pleasure to the public. Tiergarten Schönbrunn in Vienna, Austria is the oldest zoo in the world constructed in 1752 by the then Roman Emperor Francis I, solely for the bliss of the royal family but made open for public in 1765. Even before this, in the era of dynasties and kings, a collection of animals was a symbol of pride and power. Such animal collections were termed as menageries. Although it was an expensive business to maintain such collection consequently only wealthy people could afford menageries. Rulers owning menageries would also prefer to have animal experts. The job of animal experts was to make sure the welfare of animals; they should not only thrive but must breed successfully. One of the earliest records shows that the Aztec emperor harbours the grandiose animal collection in the Western Hemisphere. Mesopotamia (currently part of Iraq) and Egypt wall carvings are the shreds of evidence that such menageries existed in 2500 BC. The history reveals that ancient zoological garden or menageries were for human pleasure and to showcase their power. However, modern zoos have changed the old concept from merely a source of entertainment to a platform of public education, instigate scientific research and lay a basis for wildlife conservation. Zoos, in present days, besides displaying animals to their customers also maintain a handy population of exotic and threatened species for conservation.


The beginning

When the scientific revolution began, the philosophy of inductive reasoning started to develop among scientists. This is the era when biologists were in dire need of live subject models to answer some of the fantastic questions in biology through experimental observations. They wanted to understand animal behaviour, learn their anatomy, and trace back the human origin or perhaps life on Earth. All the curiosity was to understand and uncover the mysterious nature. Zoos across the globe although housed a modest but impressive collection of animals was a source of live specimen conceivably acted as a museum for the biologist to implement their studies. Other benefits of zoos to biologists were; they provide fairly representative samples of wild animals with an adequate replicate of respective wild habitats and had proximity for feasible access. Hence zoos started to engine the scientific world towards the common goal, conservation of nature. In the modern world with the technological revolution, conservation science has taken a massive leap forward. With the development of sciences like genetic engineering, endocrinology and assisted reproductive technology, conservation science has adopted a unique and holistic approach towards primitive conservation problems. Scientists with all such advancement have introduced a concept called captive breeding, also known as conservation breeding, an ex-situ science. The science deals with the conservation of rare and endangered species via captive breeding consequently releasing individuals in the wild. The science, need precision and amalgam of an interdisciplinary approach to be a success.


"Captive breeding is also known as captive propagation."


Understanding captive breeding

Captive breeding and Conservation breeding can be used alternatively. Scientists define captive breeding as “an essential tool in conservation, pertaining to conserve genetically a viable and healthy population, which could re-establish a self-sustaining population in their native habitat”. Human expansion is the sole and nonpareil reason behind declining animal population, ultimately destined to extinction. Sapiens are merely evolved to destroy nature and restrict wildlife to a limited area with inadequate resources to thrive, the reason that 60% of species have wiped out from the planet since 1970 (WWF’s Living Planet report, 2018), though the figure is subjected to debate as discussed in the report as well as by The Atlantic, a science magazine, the message is clear the planet Earth is in a bad state. The deeds of human become scourges to nature. Captive breeding somehow tries to cover the human mess, the technique aids wild population through supplementing the captive-bred individuals. Certain species in natural habitat does not breed effectively persisting extinction, however, in captivity better management and controlled environmental conditions ensure successful breeding of the founder population, which could be then augmented to the wild population.


Primary objectives of captive breeding programs are to,

  • maintain natural behaviour in the founder population caught from wild and later maintained in captivity for generations

  • conserve the genetic diversity as that of wild and

  • reintroduce, releasing individuals back into wild


Natural behaviour includes sexual reproductive behaviours; behaviour related to foraging and feeding, and welfare behaviour. Captivity induces stress in animals, maintaining such behaviour keeps animal away from anxiety and stress. These behavioural practices are achieved in various ways like feeding individuals with preferred food choices as that of wild, maintaining social structure of species, designing proper enrichments; both environmental and feeding enrichment, and providing suitable mate for breeding. Though the goal of keeping animal healthy and fit for breeding seems the practicable yet captive breeding programme is an expensive business and does not ensure guaranteed success at all the times. Recent programmes such as for Black-footed ferret, California condor, golden tamarin lion and red wolf show great success in the captive breeding. Conversely, scientists are still struggling with many other species like the Giant panda and the Red panda. Alas, failures hit the species back in danger. The reasons behind such failures could be species-specific and might as well due to lack of funding.

"The Phoenix zoo started one of the earliest captive breeding programs, the Arabian Oryx in 1962."


Whatever the case it’s important that we should share the stories of failure among the community and must learn from them, penning the failures are as important as scripting the success. With such enriched experience regarding setbacks from different species, one can design a better management regime and can always proceed towards success and eventually preserving precious wildlife on the planet. Certainly, though a little success in large vertebrates, captive breeding provides hope of ray to the species on the brink of extinction. Successive captive breeding needs zoo management to work in collaboration with different stakeholders across the border to make sure the elusive creatures survive in the wild again. The role of zoos in conservation certainly is no less than Noah’s ark.


Reference and further reading

Lynch, M., & Hely, M. O. (2001). Captive breeding and the genetic fitness of natural populations. 363–378.

Mcphee, M. E. (2003). Generations in captivity increases behavioral variance : considerations for captive breeding and reintroduction programs. 115, 71–77. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0006-3207(03)00095-8

Ralls, K., & Ballou, J. D. (2013). Captive Breeding and Reintroduction. Encyclopedia of Biodiversity, 662–667. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-384719-5.00268-9

Shepherdson, D. J., Mellen, J. D., Hutchins, M., & Enrichment, C. on E. (1998). Second nature : environmental enrichment for captive animals.

Swaisgood, R. R. (2007). Current status and future directions of applied behavioral research for animal welfare and conservation. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 102(3–4), 139–162. https://doi.org/10.1016/J.APPLANIM.2006.05.027





Chapter 1 The Hope for Nautre
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