Zoos are not a 19th-century phenomenon. As far back as 3500 BC, the rulers of the Egyptian capital Hierakonpolis kept hippo, elephant and wildcats. By 1070, William the Conqueror was keeping lion at Woodstock Manor in Oxfordshire. London Zoo opened in 1828 under the auspices of the Zoological Society of London (ZSL), a charity devoted to the worldwide conservation of animals and their habitats.
early 200 years later, that establishment flourishes, a wonderful place for the world to see many of the animal species that inhabit our planet. But conservationists and members of the tourism industry question the captivity of wildlife. “Animals,” they cry, “must roam without borders.” So is there still a place for these modern-day menageries in our more enlightened times?
In May, I attended a conservation seminar in South Africa where the future of zoos was discussed. There are convincing arguments both ‘for’ and ‘against’ and I find myself ‘in the horns of a dilemma’ but with a nagging feeling that there could be a place for these institutions, albeit under strict parameters.
So, why should we retain them? Well, first, it is true that they have a huge audience. Zoo groups around the world, from Chicago to Berlin, raise significant sums through donations that finance conservation initiatives, particularly in Africa. Also, they can contribute substantially to conservation work, bearing in mind that in most developed countries, zoos do not take animals from the wild for their stock. Witness ZSL in the UK, described as “a Noah’s Ark, building up healthy populations of animals, as a back-up for endangered species”. Certainly, there is a long list of animals that would be extinct were it not for zoos, including the European bison, the golden lion tamarin of Brazil, the Californian condor and the Hawaiian goose. Chester Zoo in England, for instance, even works to protect orang-utan habitat in Borneo.
However, those against retaining zoos are adamant that all animals should be allowed to roam in the wild. In zoos, they are controlled and manipulated, and kept in confined spaces unable to engage in their natural activities of hunting and grazing. In addition, activists highlight the recent Blood Lions film, demonstrating that under the guise of conservation, petting zoos in Africa, staffed by naïve volunteer recruits, are merely a disguise for the breeding of these big cats for the bullet.
Is there a position where the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps could come together? In 2008, for the first time, the world’s population was evenly split between urban and rural areas. This means that children brought up in Africa’s vast sprawling cities will have little chance of ever seeing a lion, elephant or rhino, except on a screen. Is a place that offers the opportunity to see these animals such a bad thing?
Perhaps there can be a case for retaining zoos that are helping conservation, but under strict guidelines for the welfare of the animals in their charge. With the help of organisations such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which can set the correct parameters, our grandchildren will still be able to see these fabulous animals. A few may be fortunate enough to go on safari, but the majority, I guess, will go to the nearest zoo.
Nigel Vere Nicoll is Chief Executive of Atta, which serves travel companies in the African travel sector in 37 countries. For more information visit atta.travel