A thought-provoking discussion on the future of zoos took place at the Royal Geographical Society in London last night, featuring a star-studded panel of conservation experts.
Around 300 people packed a theatre room at the prestigious venue for the Beyond Zoos discussion – hosted by the Born Free Foundation – with hundreds more watching online via a live stream.
The foundation’s president, Will Travers OBE, kicked off the event with some stats, explaining how just 4.2% of the total annual income of the Consortium of Charitable Zoos in the UK goes to in-situ conservation projects. He added: “Of the 11 UK zoos with elephants, eight have car parks bigger than their elephant enclosures.”
Travers was then joined by naturalist and presenter, Chris Packham, wildlife biologist, Dr Winnie Kiiru, businessman and conservationist, Damian Aspinall, and conservation adviser, Greta Iori, for a panel discussion.
Aspinall – who owns two zoos in Kent – spoke about the failure of zoos and his wish that they are all ultimately closed.
“It’s very hard to admit that your life’s work is wrong, but my journey is one if disillusion and disappointment. Slowly, over a period of time, it dawned on me that actually what we were doing is letting the animals in our care down.
“We were leading the public to believe, like all zoos do, that we were doing great conservation work. That is a myth. It’s just not true. I realised that 95% of the animals are not critically endangered. So why are they there?”
The panel discussed how the purpose of zoos is mostly to entertain the visitors, often to the huge detriment of the animals that are confined there.
Packham said: “You cannot run a zoo where you invite people in to look at 'exhibits' which are 'fun for all the family'. It's not fun looking at a caged animal – that isn't fun. It's not fun for that caged animal and it shouldn't be framed as such."
It was suggested that there might be some educational and inspiration value that zoos provide. However, it was agreed that wild animals should remain in the wild, with one panelist pointing out that many people are inspired to study dinosaurs, without being able to see any in real life.
“There’s no empirical evidence at all that zoos educate positively,” Aspinall said “In fact, you are actually educating the next generation that it’s ok keep animals in captivity for human entertainment.”
Packham quipped: “There are millions of young people who are fixated by Taylor Swift, but they will never see her in the flesh!” Dr Kiiru said: “I bet you that most Zoos have a better-resourced marketing department than they do research or education.”
However, if people were to stop visiting zoos, they would not be financially viable, and many of the animals would perish. It was suggested that zoos are gradually phased out and supported with government money, and that more help is given to rewilding projects
“In my humble view, not one single animal anywhere in the world should be encaged,” Aspinall said.
The conversation turned to the broader issue of conservation and biodiversity decline, with Dr Kiiru speaking about her conservation work in Kenya, and how the country has lost a million species. She said that conservation sanctuaries need more support: “We know what the solution is, put the money where our mouths are, put the money where our hearts are.”
It is also important for decision makers to listen and learn from people that have most experience with wild animals, Iori said. “It’s no coincidence that with Indigenous communities and local communities, 80% of the land they have is biodiverse,” she continued. “Shifting your perspective and learning from those that have long safeguarded natural intact ecosystems will be the greatest teachers there are for you.”
However, there are countries in the Global South that are making the same mistakes that have been made in the West. As Travers said: "Developed nations reward developing nations for becoming more like themselves.”
This event was sponsored by by Nukkleus Inc. You can watch the full event here: Beyond Zoos - YouTube
Look out for an interview with one of the panellists in the Feb/March issue of Transform