What will zoos look like in the future? That’s a question several experts have tackled on Animalia during the past week. We’ve heard from a zoo director, an American zoo designer, an Australian zoo designer, a neuroscientist and a sociologist. The final submission comes from Steve Monfort, a veterinarian who is director of the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, Va.
Zoos must focus on becoming effective conservation organizations while sustaining excellence in providing for the health and well-being of wildlife in human care. Next-generation zoos must invest large amounts of money in what’s known as “conservation infrastructure,” including much more space (on or off zoo property). These steps are essential for effectively managing genetic diversity over the long-term, and for positioning zoos as vital players on a conservation continuum that spans from intensively managed populations in human care to free-living animals in nature.
Today, zoos around the world invest more than $350 million per year in field conservation. But the majority of that money is provided by a minority of zoos. Moving forward, all zoos will increasingly be held accountable for their contributions to conservation. Make no mistake: As the biodiversity crisis worsens, the world will look even more to zoos as firewalls against extinctions and as leaders in partnerships to prevent the extinction of species in nature. This represents both a daunting responsibility and a huge opportunity for zoos to ensure a steady, diverse supply of animals — not only to to fill exhibits, but also to ensure the availability of animals for efforts to restore, exchange or bolster wild populations.
Modern zoos already form creative alliances and partnerships to run programs including conservation and breeding centers or managed reserves in species’ range countries. With a lot of effort, collaboration — and, yes, expense — species that have been extinct in the wild can be successfully reintroduced. Earlier this spring, a consortium of zoos working in partnership with the Sahara Conservation Fund and the governments of Abu Dhabi and Chad repatriated 25 scimitar-horned oryx to their ancestral landscape in Africa’s Sahel region. It took 30 years, but we are working toward a goal of achieving self-sustaining herds of more than 500 animals in five years. This and a growing number of other reintroduced species — including black-footed ferrets, golden-lion tamarins and California condors — make a strong case for zoos to invest more toward becoming effective conservation organizations.
The implicit social contract between zoos and the public requires that zoos connect the animals in their care to the work they do to ensure species’ survival in nature. If zoos act as leaders in projects that achieve measurable conservation outcomes, people are likely to continue visiting them for inspiration and enjoyment, and also to be part of a collective effort to stop extinction.