Two days after Harambe the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla was fatally shot to save a toddler’s life, the zoo’s director, Thane Maynard, lamented the death as a “loss to the gene pool of lowland gorillas.” Most media reports on the killing, meanwhile, mentioned that western lowland gorillas, of which Harambe was one, are critically endangered.

A 3-year-old boy fell into an endangered gorilla's enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo on May 28, and a witness captured the scene as onlookers shouted for help (Kimberley O'Connor/ViralHog)

What does one thing have to do with the other? Not all that much, at least not in the present day. Here’s why.

What gene pool was Maynard talking about?

He was referring to the gene pool of the 360 or so captive gorillas at accredited zoos in the United States. These zoos are guided by the gorilla “Species Survival Plan,” a group that shares information on gorilla care, research, advocacy, breeding, transfer plans and even a “studbook,” which outlines the family tree of every captive gorilla. The goal is to ensure the population remains healthy, which means having enough gorillas to prevent inbreeding and moving gorillas around so that they don’t end up mating with relatives. Harambe was transferred from the Gladys Porter Zoo in Brownsville, Tex., in 2014, with the idea that he would breed with females in Cincinnati.

But keeping gene pools healthy was not much of a zoo mission before the 1970s, said Jeffrey Hyson, an expert on U.S. zoos and a historian at Saint Joseph’s University, in Philadelphia. “That was partly a recognition that there is this almost moral obligation on the part of zoos to preserve” animals whose habitats are being destroyed, he said, “and partly a belated recognition that you need to manage captive breeding more carefully. … There was rampant inbreeding in zoo populations, which led to all sorts of birth defects and health problems.”

The Cincinnati Zoo's director says officials were right to kill a gorilla that had grabbed a young boy who fell into the exhibit over the weekend. (Reuters)

What’s the deal with western lowland gorillas in the wild? 

These gorillas — whose scientific name is the wonderful gorilla gorilla gorilla — live in the dense and remote rainforests of central and western equatorial Africa, where they’re hard to study and count. For that reason, population estimates vary wildly, from 30,000 to 200,000; most estimates, however, hover around 100,000. That might sound like a lot of gorillas, but since 2007, the species has been listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as “critically endangered,” which means they have a high risk of going extinct. According to the IUCN, the population has declined by more than 60 percent in the past 25 years.

There are several reasons for this. Western lowland gorillas are widely hunted for meat, and their body parts are used as medicine and “magical charms,” according to the World Wildlife Fund, which probably means dozens are killed every day with nary a blip of the attention Harambe’s death received. Baby gorillas are captured and sold as pets. Ebola, which killed thousands of people in West Africa two years ago, has also been devastating to these gorillas. Some scientists say it has killed one-third of them. They’re also losing wide arcs of their forest home to logging and mining.

On top of that, the IUCN says, the species doesn’t reproduce quickly, which means that even if poaching and Ebola ended tomorrow, the population wouldn’t recover for at least 75 years. Before then, the agency says, habitat loss and climate change will become even bigger threats. So it’s hard to see how the gorillas will make it in the wild unless humanity makes rapid, dramatic and very complicated changes.

So do zoo gorillas like Harambe help this situation? 

Not directly, at least not now. First, some history. Hyson, the professor, said zoos started really getting interested in breeding endangered species in the 1960s, as colonialism began ending in Africa and newly independent states started developing land. That made the supply of many zoo animals — which until that time were often imported from Africa — more tenuous. The environmental movement was also emerging in the United States, Hyson said, and suddenly the idea of zoos as a modern-day Noah’s Ark, which could help save threatened species from doom, gained currency.

Today, most, if not all, endangered animals bred in zoos will never be introduced into the wild. Harambe and other zoo gorillas have known no life but captivity. Still, zoos carefully manage the gene pools not only for the animals’ health but also because they are viewed as an “insurance policy” in case of their extinction, said Michael Hutchins, a former executive director of the Wildlife Society and former director and chair of conservation and science at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

“They don’t know,” Hutchins, who is now at American Bird Conservancy, said of zoos. “Maybe they will put them out in the wild someday.”

For now, that’s a big maybe.

Zoos “have done amazing work in preserving animals that are nearly extinct in the wild in some cases,” Hyson said. “The vast majority of zoo animals, especially mammals, are captive-bred. But I do think there’s an important ethical question about, well, bred for what? In the overwhelming majority of cases, it’s bred to be another generation in the zoo.”

But zoos say they help with wildlife conservation. What do they mean?

Many zoos tout conservation as a key part of their mission, though that was not always the case. Hyson said the first U.S. zoos, in the 19th century, were places to see exotic animals, full stop. Animals were purchased from dealers or “collected” in Africa, and the breeding they did was incidental. Talk about conservation became more common in the 1960s.

But it remains controversial whether zoos mean what they say about conservation, or whether what they do has an impact. This week, I asked Smithsonian’s National Zoo, the AZA and the Wildlife Conservation Society — which manages conservation projects around the world as well as zoos in New York — to talk about this. The WCS flat-out said no, and the National Zoo and AZA didn’t respond to interview requests.

According to publicly available information and experts, though, zoos promote wildlife conservation in a few ways. One is by raising funds for conservation projects in the wild. The AZA’s 2014 conservation report says 241 U.S. zoos spent $154 million on conservation initiatives in 130 countries that year. Among other efforts, the Cincinnati Zoo says it helps fund a long-running gorilla field study in Congo, and it also collects donated cellphones, which it says helps reduce the demand for coltan mining in gorilla habitats.

Hutchins said zoos also allow scientists to conduct important research that can’t be done in the wild and serve as training grounds for biologists. The animals, he said, act as ambassadors for their kind, teaching visitors about their importance and the threats to them.

“They’re connecting with people who don’t have any other experience with wildlife. These are urban populations; they’re not traveling to Africa, for the most part,” Hutchins said. “They’re not ever going to see a gorilla except on TV.” Quality zoos, he said, “are probably needed more than ever, because the situation in the wild for animals is just not good. We’re still losing habitat and losing species, and we shouldn’t be giving up on these institutions that are so focused on them.”

Then do zoos inspire new generations of conservationists?

That’s unclear. The AZA says they do and cites studies supporting that claim. But when British sociologist Eric Jensen and colleagues surveyed 5,661 zoo-and-aquarium-goers in 19 countries for a study that published in Conservation Biology in 2014, their findings were more ambiguous. Most visitors reported having a greater understanding of biodiversity and conservation.

“But the challenge for zoos and aquariums now is how to use these findings to directly improve the conservation of biodiversity, because it’s important to remember that an increase in knowledge does not necessarily lead to a change in behavior,” Jensen said at the time.

One of the most prominent naysayers of zoos’ claims about conservation is David Hancocks, a longtime zoo director and architect. As he argued to Conservation magazine in 2013: “If you strip away the rhetoric of what zoos claim they do and what they actually do, it’s still 99.99 percent putting animals on show.”

Hyson said that’s probably also the way many visitors see it.

“I often like to say that people go to zoos for the same reason today that they went to zoos 160 years ago: To see exotic animals up close and active,” he said. “The mission, they have changed; the frame and the design, they have changed. But that visitor experience is still fundamentally the same.”

Back to the gene pool. What does the loss of Harambe mean?

It’s impossible to know how many baby gorillas Harambe might have sired. But Maynard, the Cincinnati Zoo director, said genetic diversity in the captive gorilla population is so crucial that the zoo harvested the gorilla’s sperm after his death, according to the Cincinnati Enquirer. He also said other scientists have contacted the zoo about other uses for the ape’s remains, such as storing tissue for future research.

As for those critically endangered gorillas in the African forests? The best hope, probably, is that Harambe’s globally publicized death will do more to bring attention to their plight than a more uneventful life at the zoo ever could have.

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