As the human population continues to grow at an estimated nine billion by 2050, it’s clear that there are not enough wild places left for many animals on our planet.
Around the world zoos are responding to threats of global wildlife extinctions by embracing an ever more active role in conservation. By managing many species in zoos, we offer a unique contribution to conservation by providing a safety net against extinction in the wild.
Zoos today manage animal breeding through ‘insurance programs’ – insurance against extinction in the wild. Thousands of animal species are functionally extinct in the wild. For them, zoos are a modern day Noah’s Ark.
Zoos around the world are working together to breed these species so that they will survive in the 21st century, with curators managing these insurance breeding programs for long-term conservation outcomes.
In many cases, the problem in the wild is not necessarily a shortage of animals, rather it’s a shortage of habitat. Right now, zoos around the world could, for example, breed hundreds of Sumatran Tigers for release in the wild. With a shrinking habitat and threat of pouching, however, simply adding more tigers to that situation won’t fix the problem.
As such, many conservation programs aim to ensure the survival of a species in zoos for at least 100 years. Over this time, humans have a chance to reverse their impact on the planet. Once the tiger habitat is secure and safe, if needed, zoos will have genetically sound tigers ready for release to re-establish or bolster existing populations.
In some cases, this is already starting to happen. When there is habitat restoration, threat abatement or a shortage of animals due to disease, we can breed for more imminent release. Examples of Australian species currently being restored in the wild include the Corroboree Frog, the Regent Honeyeater and the Tasmanian Devil.
This means that each animal in the zoo must have a clearly defined role so that the available resources go to the best possible conservation outcomes, be it through breeding endangered species, scientific research or educating visitors. The impact of our zoos can have on the conservation of a species is limited by the amount of space and resources to house and breed each species. Zoos therefore carefully balance the resources available with the potential contribution to a species’ survival.
- Erna Walraven, Senior Curator