Captivity isn’t Conservation

Captivity isn’t Conservation

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Instead of imprisoning animals for profit, why not support shared efforts in coexistence?

Zoos are entertainment, and while they contribute to conservation they don’t provide any real solution. Wildlife can only be saved by empowering their protection in their own natural habitats—and that means we have to work with local communities and not against them.

On 28th May 2016, for example, Harambe, a captive-born gorilla, was shot dead after a young boy fell into his enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo in the United States. One week earlier, two lions were destroyed at Santiago’s Metropolitan Zoo in Chile, and a week before that a Sumatran elephant called Yani died in the notorious Surabaya Zoo in Indonesia. An online discussion has exploded about each of these sad cases, but by and the large it’s a debate that excludes the views of those most important for success.

Opponents of zoos such as Marc Bekoff, a behavioral ecologist and professor emeritus at the University of Colorado, argue that an animal’s life in captivity is a shadow of their experience in the wild. Proponents of zoos such as the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums counter that the conservation benefits zoos provide outweigh the isolated (albeit tragic) costs paid by the animals involved.

On social media zoo supporters say that captive animals serve as conservation ‘ambassadors’ for their wild counterparts, and that zoos are a ‘Noah’s Ark’ that provides a buffer against the decline of endangered species. In truth, this is a script that even the zoo industry has quietly abandoned.

While some species such as oryx, wolves and condors have benefited from captive breeding programs, there is precious little evidence that zoo-bred genetics are being used to strengthen wild populations of gorillas, elephants and dolphins. Zoos recognize that they have insufficient space to engage in successful breeding programs for large mammals, and are unable to accommodate more than the smallest fraction of the world’s 22,784 species that are threatened with extinction. So why do zoos persist?

Zoos began life as amusements, and while they have evolved they still exist to make money and tap into a wealthy societal appetite for entertainment. But at a deeper level they are key components of an international conservation system that resembles the West’s colonial and racial past. This system believes that communities in parts of the world where most endangered species live are a problem that must be fixed—most often by acquiring traditional lands, establishing camps and other experiences for wealthy tourists, and employing gun-carrying guards to patrol the boundaries of parks and reserves.

Both zoo proponents and their opponents rarely recognize that discussions about conservation radiate almost exclusively from Europe, North America and Australia. Meanwhile, the voices of those who actually live alongside the animals in question are ignored. To fill their exhibits, zoos either breed animals or remove them from the wild. And that leaves a trail of money behind each individual animal as it moves from one enclosure to another along the long chain of captivity, bearing an uncomfortable resemblance to other commodities that are traded under global capitalism including slaves and human trafficking.

However, most of this money doesn’t flow to the communities where these species naturally live. It flows between professional (and sometimes illegal) wildlife traders and the coffers of governments along the way. Sometimes animals move through intermediaries, perhaps to remove any traces of their origins.

Zoos do invest in conservation programmes, but the generosity of these exchanges is small compared to the profits that are derived from the animals in their exhibits, or the large sums that are spent on acquiring animals and creating zoo displays: in 2011 John Fa and his colleagues calculated that investments in situ or in local conservation efforts represented less than five percent of the total income of zoos in the USA.

Many human cultures understand that people and wildlife share the same spaces, and therefore need to cohabit in order to survive. Human and non-human cultures alike are threatened by pollution, deforestation and climate change. The destruction of the natural world impoverishes everybody. So if we did ask local communities for their opinions on what to do about these issues, we might be surprised by their suggestions.

But for these voices to be heard, zoos have to abandon their dominant position in debates over conservation, a position which overshadows the multitude of smaller views and the wisdom they often represent. Zoos should speak with honesty about the work they do and don’t do, and admit that many of their living exhibits are designed for profit.

Posted by Open Democracy