The Role of Zoos in Animal Conservation

By Jarrel Mc.Farlane

Zoos have been an institution within human civilisation for as long as man has had an interest in wild animals. Starting off as simple displays of these creatures that one might have to journey into the dangerous wild to see, zoos have now evolved into multifaceted organizations that take on many responsibilities other than entertainment as the world and humans have progressed. One such role is actions towards the conservation of environmentally sensitive species by partaking in biodiversity conservation (Kleiman 2015).

Biodiversity conservation has become an increasingly relevant topic over the years as the Earth’s biodiversity, which is defined as the collection of all the different plant and animal species globally, is facing a steady decline at the hands of mankind. The human population is at an all-time high and continues to increase exponentially. This brings with it the need for more resources in order to sustain the lives of the ever-increasing growing human population. This drive for resources, such as food, agricultural, commercial, and residential land, building materials and industrialization has greatly contributed to the degradation of the natural environment and exacerbated major threats to biodiversity (Primack 2010).

While biodiversity consists of both flora and fauna, the focal point of this article is animal conservation. Animal wildlife is threatened when the natural habitat of these animals is being lost or destroyed due to human activities, or the animals themselves are being exploited. These activities can be direct, such as hunting or changing the environment for other purposes, such as forests being cleared for agriculture and expanding settlements, or indirectly as a consequence of anthropogenic climate change. 

As humans move across the landscape, their utilization of the land is not uniform. This can lead to entire plots of natural vegetation being cleared, which is total habitat loss, or habitat fragmentation, where “islands” of natural habitat remain isolated by lands that have been extremely altered by anthropogenic activity termed as the “matrix”. When land is cleared for agricultural use, the natural biodiversity of the area is removed, reducing the habitats for many native species (Templeton et al. 1990). In the Caribbean where agriculture is an integral economic sector, large areas of natural habitat are cleared, resulting in high rates of fragmentation. Increased urbanization also contributes to fragmentation when habitats are cleared in order for new infrastructure such as roads and housing to be introduced.

Increased human activity also results in increased global warming, which is the major driving force for anthropogenic climate change. The increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are resulting in rising sea levels, melting ice caps, and changing the climate in certain areas, making the natural habitat, that the animals are accustomed to, unsuitable for their survival. These unsuitable conditions cause the decline of wild animal populations, as they have lost their homes, are unable to find resources such as food and water, are at a greater risk for predation and poaching (Travis, 2003). These animals may even be hunted as a food source, which can decimate populations if left unregulated.

So how do zoos help these dwindling animal populations?  By engaging in either one or both of the broadscale conservation methods, namely in situ conservation, where efforts are made to protect the animals in their natural habitats, or ex situ conservation, which requires caring for the animals in a remote location away from the natural habitat, which is the main method undertaken by zoos. In keeping with their initial goal of having wild animals on display that one would not normally have a chance to see up close, zoos can achieve this while also keeping populations of these animals alive when they can’t be found anywhere else. For example, the Spix’s macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) which is most notably known for its feature in the 2011 animated film “Rio”, has been declared extinct in the wild by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Therefore, these birds can only be found in captivity, where habitats have been made available to them and can be maintained and are not facing the threat of being lost to deforestation or the illegal wildlife trade. 

Another way in which zoos assist in conservation efforts is the establishment of breeding programs. By having a cohort of the endangered animals available, the zoos can now engage in setting up breeding stock. The goal of these creatures would be to increase the population. Those bred in captivity, based on their behavioural patterns, can either possibly be reintroduced into the wild in the future, or transferred to other zoos and wildlife centres to take part in their breeding programs or be a part of the exhibits. In our local Emperor Valley Zoo right here in Trinidad, the African lions (Panthera leo) are captive born, with the males transferred from Abilene Zoo in Texas that has extensive breeding programs for endangered animals (De Four 2013). There were plans to send lion cubs born of these local lions to zoos within South America. The African lion is listed as vulnerable by the IUCN, meaning that their wild populations are in decline, but not yet considered low enough to be listed as endangered.

A lot of zoos also have an education program that goes hand in hand with their conservation programs. While ex situ conservation is more of a reactionary method to conservation, educating the public on the importance of conservation is a very effective and proactive method. Human beings are the driving force behind the endangerment of wild animals, whether by trophy hunting, the illegal wildlife trade, or habitat destruction. The zoos may not only offer a place where one can gain an appreciation for the sheer beauty of wildlife but also engage with persons, teaching them about the roles animals play in the balance of the ecosystem and how they are harmed by various human activities. These take place on-site, as well as through visits to schools and fairs where the information can be shared with the wider population. By teaching persons how their actions and interactions with nature can affect the wellbeing of the creatures, it can influence their future actions and even encourage them to get involved in conservation actions such as volunteering and contributing towards ensuring safer land-use practices and the banning of harmful activities such as trophy hunting and stricter enforcement against the illegal wildlife trade. 

Rehabilitation of wild animals that have been injured, either via a run-in with humans, or during the illegal wildlife trade by being placed in dangerous and inappropriate vessels for transport or by harmful capture methods, is another avenue that zoos take to assist in the conservation of precious wildlife. Most of the animals in the illegal wildlife trade consist of animals that have a high value on the black market due to their rarity in the wild. Taking these animals away from their natural habitat contributes to the decreasing population and the species’ descent to endangerment or even worse, extinction. By rehabilitating these injured animals and returning them to their natural habitats, the decline of their population numbers is slowed. Working together with the respective agencies in the fight against the illegal wildlife trade, zoos can help prevent the introduction of invasive species into their local ecosystems. Invasive species are those which are not native to a certain location, and due to them lacking a natural predator, their numbers can grow exponentially, causing a strain on resources for the local species, and they can also out-compete the native species, leading to a collapse of the native ecosystems. 

Overall, zoos have become a very important institution in the fight for wildlife conservation over the years with their roles expanding from solely entertainment to action-based programs of ex-situ conservation, education, and rehabilitation. Although some may be seen in a negative light, and the existence of some bad apples can’t be overlooked, zoos are a beneficial part of human society. Sometimes underfunded and depending on volunteers and donations, most of these institutions are doing their best to keep up with international standards for animal care and preserve nature, not just for us to enjoy, but for the wellbeing of the animals as well.


De Four, Mirissa. 2013. “Young Lions Draw 10,000 To Zoo”. Trinidad And Tobago Guardian, 2013.

International Union for Conservation of Nature. “IUCN Red List of Threatened Species”

Kleiman, Devra G. 2015. Wild Mammals In Captivity: Principles And Techniques For Zoo Management. 2nd ed. Johanneshov: MTM.

Primack, Richard B. 2010. Essentials Of Conservation Biology. 5th ed. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates.

Templeton, Alan R., Kerry Shaw, Eric Routman, and Scott K. Davis. 1990. “The Genetic Consequences Of Habitat Fragmentation”. Annals Of The Missouri Botanical Garden 77 (1): 13. doi:10.2307/2399621.

Travis, J. M. J. 2003. “Climate Change And Habitat Destruction: A Deadly Anthropogenic Cocktail”. Proceedings Of The Royal Society Of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 270 (1514): 467-473. doi:10.1098/rspb.2002.2246.