Updated: Mar 27, 2018
By Sarena Randall Gill, Science Writer
Zoological organizations have come a long way from the menageries of old. While zoos remain destinations for families and friends to enjoy and learn, the commitment to high-quality animal care, naturalistic habitat designs, and conservation efforts are more of a priority than ever before.
Around the world, the effects of large human populations have created conditions where many animal species encounter heightened environmental stressors that are too rapid and too extreme for most to adapt. The number of species listed as threatened or endangered continues to grow. Reduced habitat due to human encroachment, deforestation, and desertification, coupled with the threat of poaching and rapidly changing climate conditions, devastates the populations of numerous species around the world.
Conservationists continue to do all they can to combat these effects and save species. Zoological organizations support and even drive conservation efforts through in situ (in native range) and ex situ (outside of native range, such as the zoo) research, education, and assistance in community-based conservation. Additionally, by caring for a representative population of animal species, zoological organizations give access to people who might never hear about or see such animals other than from visiting them at a zoo. These organizations also serve as population protectors—called an insurance population—against catastrophic loss within these animals’ native ranges.
In 2015, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) began the SAFE campaign: Saving Animals From Extinction.
Recognizing that some species currently exist only because of the efforts of zoological organizations, which include aquariums and conservation partners, SAFE focuses its public engagement on key species and conservation efforts. Several species face a high risk of poaching, namely elephants, rhinos, and gorillas. There are 230 accredited zoos and aquariums in nine countries around the world. The reach of this campaign is global.
There are many reasons why humans choose to poach. Historically, people have found elephant tusks to be attractive for their high value. Tusk ivory has been used to produce amenities like piano keys and carved figurines, and in many cases, low-income families have sold such items so that they can afford food and access to clean water. For many others, the selling of ivory enables them to turn a profit.
Of course, while these are human excesses, elephants need their tusks because tusks are elongated incisors. The “ivory” comes from the visible part of the tooth, which consists of dentine with a layer of enamel covering it. Elephants use their tusks for a variety of reasons, including protection, to indicate genetic fitness to be deemed a worthy mate by females, and for foraging and digging. While tusks continue to grow throughout an elephant’s lifetime, the increase in poaching for ivory has reduced the number of elephants carrying the genes for big tusks.
The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species banned the international trade of ivory, but countries can still individually decide the legality of their own domestic trade. For example, ivory antiques are still legal in the United States. It is within this grey area that zoological organizations can influence public opinion to benefit these animals.
In 2011, AZA formally supported 18 International Elephant Foundation conservation projects. Through this, AZA emphasized the importance of motivating people to protect these animals by fostering an understanding of them through their first-hand interactions with these endangered species.
On average, poaching causes the death of 96 elephants every day. Zoos are using engagement and educational campaigns to share this message and make people aware of the conse quences of losing so many elephants.
In 2014, the Zoological Society of London Whipsnade Zoo set a world record for the largest display of origami elephants. Zoo guests and staff folded 33,764 paper elephants. In 2016, the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) rallied its own zoos and aquariums in collaboration with other United States zoos to surpass that record, making 78,564 paper elephants. These numbers are not arbitrary. The amount of paper elephants displayed in 2016 on National Elephant Appreciation Day represented the number of elephants that could be killed over the span of two years if no conservation action is taken. The opportunity for zoo guests to get involved by folding elephants and learning more about the campaign opens the door for zoos to encourage more actions.
The efforts of WCS are manifold. They operate five zoos and aquariums in the state of New York and have field conservation operations in nearly sixty countries. WCS partners with communities, oversees ranger teams, and manages national parks in twelve African countries in their efforts to educate about conservation and work to reduce and eliminate poaching. They couple these efforts with the educational fundraising campaign “96 Elephants”, which strives to engage communities in elephant conservation and increase awareness of the devastating effects of poaching.
In 2013, the Houston Zoo raised a quarter of a million dollars to protect elephants in their native ranges. These funds support local community efforts, strengthen community education, and help to reduce poaching. Similarly, the Zoological Society of London has invested in the development of innovative technologies to ensure efficient anti-poaching and other conservation efforts. More recent progress includes using the Internet of Things (IoT) technologies for anti-poaching by detecting human presence around wildlife populations. The sensors in these technologies are capable of low-power and longer-distance communication. This means faster alerts for conservationists and community members, and therefore faster response.
With access to more than 195 million visitors annually, zoological organizations can make significant efforts for public engagement, education, and action. These are only a few examples of how zoological organizations are contributing to anti-poaching conservation work.