Zoos - species protection or animal abuse? | Environment| All topics from climate change to conservation | DW | 01.09.2012
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Zoos - species protection or animal abuse?

More than 100 species of animals become extinct in the wild every day. Humans destroy their habitats, or hunt them down to the last specimen. Can zoos help protect these animals from total annihilation?

Keeping wild animals was long a privilege of the nobility – 4,000 years ago, the emperor of the Xia dynasty in China had menageries. Later, Assyrian rulers collected crocodiles, and the Aztecs had giant birds of prey. The Medici princes of Italy appreciated exotic animals in their parks, as did Louis XIV of France and especially the Habsburg king, Franz I. Stephan, who, in 1752, founded what is now the oldest existing zoo in the world, the Schönbrunn Zoo in Vienna.

But royals were not concerned with protecting endangered species. Today, this is one of the major concerns of modern zoos in the 21st Century. For many species habitats are disappearing. More than seven billion people must be supplied with food and raw materials, and farms and mines devour land all over the world. Then, there is the energy crop production, which devours acres upon acres of land, turning it into fields, orchards, plantations, building sites. When the habitats disappear, so do the animals.

The diversity of extinctions

Habitat destruction is the main reason for the extinction of species. Climate change will continue to claim victims, especially for cold-adapted species. Humans also kill animals directly. Gorillas are killed by marauding gangs in the blood diamond trade, and rare animals end up as bush meat in African and Asian markets. At night, when African weaver birds are gathered together to sleep, their roosting trees are burned by farmers who see them as pests. Poaching of elephants has also increased dramatically in West Africa. And due to the lust for aphrodisiacs, the only chance many rhinos have to survive is if they are accompanied by armed guards.

Two Siberian tigers at the Cologne Zoo in Germany (Photo from 08.03.12). dapd Photo: Roberto Pfeil/dapd

Two Siberian tigers at the Cologne Zoo in Germany

In brief, the options are dismal. So, are zoos the last resort for keeping animals out of harm's way? Or are the critics right: keeping animals in captivity is animal cruelty?. The animal rights group Peta has called on Germany's Agriculture Minister, Ilse Aigner, to ban big cats in zoos. "If a tiger has the opportunity to attack a person, or to escape, it will use it," says Peta employee Peter Höffken. Cheetahs and chimpanzees that escape repeatedly from enclosures prove that they want to get out. To Höffken, zoos are "high security prisons."

Success stories in conservation

Manfred Niekisch is convinced that zoo animals are still wild animals. "A wild animal will always be a wild animal, even though it lives in a zoo,” he said. Niekisch, the director of the Frankfurt Zoo, believes that the animals at the zoo are not simply mentally broken. Behavioral disorders that develop from having bored cheetahs in cramped cages would not happen in a modern well-managed zoo.

Whether turtle or tiger, there are now sophisticated programs to make up for the disadvantages of living in spatial confinement, Niekisch ensured. "Most importantly, because of advances in veterinary medicine, we can now treat animals much more humanely. For example, apes once lived, for hygiene reasons, in enclosures with bathroom architecture like tiles and steel. But today they live on soft ground in artificial forests, and are thus much closer to nature."

A South African bull elephant Copyright: Schönbrunn Zoo/IZW

Elephant poaching has increased dramatically in West Africa

Because their quality of life is so high, zoo animals often live to be much older than in the wild and many species willingly breed. There are now large zoo populations – two thirds of all Siberian tigers live in zoos. The species are preserved, and some day, if conditions are right, these animals could be reintroduced into the wild to establish new populations. "This idea works - just look at the success stories of the European bison, the Przewalski horse, or the California condor," said Manfred Niekisch. Even today's stocks of scimitar oryx and screwhorn antilopes in North Africa, the golden lion tamarin in South America or the bearded vulture in central and southern Europe would not exist without the reintroduction from zoos.

"Today, zoos are for saving irreplaceable biodiversity!” says Dag Encke, head of the Nuremberg Zoo. "No other facility has more knowledge than a zoo to create a vibrant, viable population."

A safe haven in a human-centric world

About 130 zoos around the world have reintroduction programs. Unfortunately, they are expensive, complicated projects that are carried out only if they promise success, proving that the animals will not be massacred again. The plight of lions in a national park in Malawi serves as an example of how big the danger can be. Although park rangers had military training and were there for the animal's protection, they could not prevent poachers from killing the lions for their paws.

For zoos to serve as protective arks one detail must be met above all the rest - humans must leave the animals room to live. In Asia, where the last refuges of the orangutan are disappearing, that requirement could undo every effort to save the species. For proponents, such as Manfred Niekisch, zoos provide a glimmer of hope in this situation. "Every year, more than 700 million people visit zoos around the world - and it is often the only place where they have any contact with animals, even more so, with wildlife.”

If these visitors learn to understand the animals' plight, they will also campaign for the preservation of the wilderness. "Although zoos cannot replace the conservation site, they can help sensitize people and convince them." Zoos are also places of knowledge – most modern knowledge about wild animals come from zoos and this knowledge benefits animals in the wild.

A baby dolphin swims with her mother at the Duisburg zoo. (AP Photo/Martin Meissner)

It is difficult to breed marine mammals in captivity

Vulnerability: dolphins

Manfred Niekisch also points out that zoo philosophy changes with increased knowledge about the needs of animals. "The tendency is to keep fewer animals because then they will get more space." In a modern zoo animals can follow their natural instincts and social behaviors are respected. "With bonobos, we now know that the bond between mother and son is very strong. In the past, we sent the young males alone to other zoos, but today we keep them with their mothers so that this important bond is not destroyed.”

However, the development isn't positive for all animals. Dolphins and fish in zoos are often just "used,” explained a behavioral scientist (name withheld), adding that in some zoos the aquariums are not run very well. Deceased animals are repeatedly replaced by ones caught in the wild. And furthermore, the breeding of many fish and marine mammals can be difficult.

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