What is the role of zoos today? The captivity v conservation debate
Conservation

What is the role of zoos today? The captivity v conservation debate

Behind the scenes at London Zoo’s Tiger Territory, Asim is being trained. “Asim down!” says senior keeper Laura Garrett — and the seven-year-old Sumatran tiger lies on the floor. “Asim up!” makes him stand, “Asim sit!” crouch and “Asim board!” lie on a platform where vets can monitor his health.

The tiger is rewarded with chunks of meat, which he grabs from metal tongs pushed through the wide mesh of his enclosure. Finally Laura crosses her arms, a sign that feeding time is over.

Asim’s behaviour and physiology are studied for clues that could help conservation efforts to save wild Sumatran tigers, fewer than 400 of which survive in Indonesia.

His stay at ZSL London Zoo — showcase of the Zoological Society of London, the FT’s seasonal appeal partner — had a catastrophic start. Asim arrived in January from Denmark through a European breeding exchange programme that aims to increase the genetic diversity of animals threatened with extinction in the wild.

Then, in a sad exception to European zoos’ generally excellent mating of big cats, Asim killed his intended partner Melati in a fight after their introduction in February. 

Looking back at the tragedy, Malcolm Fitzpatrick, senior curator of mammals, said: “Every precaution was taken when Asim and Melati were introduced. The animal team saw all the positive signs that indicated the introduction would be successful — cautious greetings, chuffing and sniffing. But nature is unpredictable. There is always an inherent risk with any big cat introduction.”

27/11/2019 FT Seasonal appeal at ZSL, London Zoo. To go with Clive Cookson copy. Asmi the Sumatran tiger at London Zoo.

Asim on one of the high feeding poles in his enclosure. The terrain is designed to appeal to tigers’ natural love of climbing

27/11/2019 FT Seasonal appeal at ZSL, London Zoo. To go with Clive Cookson copy. Gorillas at London Zoo.

London Zoo hosts a colony of western lowland gorillas, which are critically endangered in their native central Africa

There are no plans for Asim to meet another tigress in the immediate future, but if and when the time comes for another introduction “Asim does not pose a greater risk to a tigress than any other male tiger,” Mr Fitzpatrick insisted. Tigers fight in the wild too, sometimes with fatal results.

Asim lives in a large enclosure with trees and high feeding poles — tigers enjoy climbing — and toys to play with. “Training forms part of a carefully designed behavioural enrichment programme which stimulates Asim and keeps his mind active,” Mr Fitzpatrick added.

Many people feel uneasy about keeping free-ranging animals in captivity — and organisations such as Freedom for Animals, the Aspinall Foundation and Born Free Foundation are campaigning for the eventual abolition of zoos. 

ZSL officials acknowledge such concerns but insist that zoos justify their existence, both by providing a scientific base that underpins conservation work around the world and through their educational role, letting children and adults experience animals that they are unlikely to encounter in the wild.

27/11/2019 FT Seasonal appeal at ZSL, London Zoo. To go with Clive Cookson copy. Masters students watch a direction of a porpoise with Cetologist, Rob Deaville, at the Institute of Zoology.

Masters students study a porpoise at the Institute of Zoology. ZSL is researching why dolphin, whale and porpoise strandings happen

27/11/2019 FT Seasonal appeal at ZSL, London Zoo. To go with Clive Cookson copy. Keeper Craig Walker with endangered Partula snails at London Zoo.

Partula tree snails from French Polynesia, which ZSL and a network of zoos worldwide are reintroducing into the wild

“An important concept today is the ‘continuum of wildness’,” said Nic Masters, ZSL chief vet. “This is the idea that there is no longer a simple contrast between captive animals and free wild animals. Zoos occupy the most intensive end of that continuum but there is little true wilderness left in the world.”

Mr Masters said modern well-run zoos emphasise the health and welfare of their charges above anything else. Studies have shown that mammals in zoos generally live longer and enjoy better health than their wild counterparts. Indeed zoo vets have succeeded so well that a new field of geriatric veterinary medicine is emerging, to treat disorders of elderly animals such as arthritis.

At the same time research at London Zoo in Regents Park and its sister site ZSL Whipsnade Zoo in Bedfordshire — for example into animals’ genetics, reproductive and feeding behaviour — is underpinning efforts to conserve species that are critically endangered in the wild, such as Chinese giant salamanders and “mountain chicken” frogs on the Caribbean island of Dominica.

27/11/2019 FT Seasonal appeal at ZSL, London Zoo. To go with Clive Cookson copy. Vet, Tai Strike, conducts an ultrasound of a pregnant Okapi at London Zoo this morning.

A vet carries out an ultrasound on an okapi, a relative of the giraffe that lives in the dense rainforests of the Democratic Republic of Congo

27/11/2019 FT Seasonal appeal at ZSL, London Zoo. To go with Clive Cookson copy. Vet, Tai Strike, conducts an ultrasound of a pregnant Okapi at London Zoo this morning.

Okapi can be pregnant for 14-16 months, and give birth to one calf

However, most species in the 100 or so institutions that belong to the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (Biaza) are not threatened with extinction. For many zoos the educational function — the opportunity to bring people into contact with animals — may be more important than conservation. 

“Never have more people lived in urban environments and felt disconnected from wildlife,” said Kathryn England, London Zoo’s chief operating officer. “We’ve recently had some great television programmes that have increased the depth of public knowledge about nature, but even the best experiences on a flat screen lack the immersion with all your senses that you get when visiting a zoo.”

However Andrew Terry, who joined ZSL in April as conservation director after 11 years as head of field programmes at the Durrell Trust, wants zoos to integrate their work more effectively with worldwide conservation efforts.

“I am a critical friend of zoos,” he said. “We can do more to export the skills of our zookeepers out into the field. For example we want to strengthen the conservation connection between Sumatran tigers in zoos and in the wild.”

Even if Asim does not breed, his behaviour in London Zoo’s Tiger Territory may yet have lessons for those trying to save his remaining wild cousins in Indonesia.

How you can help

Please help us support ZSL’s urgent work by making a donation to the FT’s Seasonal Appeal. Click here to donate now.

If you are a UK resident and you donate before December 31, the amount you give will be matched by the UK government — up to £2m. This fund-matching will be used to help communities in Nepal and Kenya build sustainable livelihoods, escape poverty and protect their wildlife.

Read more about our Seasonal Appeal partner ZSL: ft.com/zsl-facts

Photographs by Charlie Bibby for the FT


Letters in response to this article:

Zoos are human-centric — their role in conserving species is not significant / From Damian Aspinall, Howletts Wild Animal Park, Bekesbourne, Kent, UK

Way forward for zoos is as scientific breeding centres for endangered species / From Seyan Dattani, Northwood, Middx, UK

When I grow up I will help protect tigers too / From Max Cunningham (age five), Silver Spring, MD, US