The idea that a zoo is the sole or even best repository for learning is risible
By Damian Aspinall
Over the past century, thousands of species have disappeared from our planet, and many more are on the critically endangered list. Yet even as we wantonly destroy nature’s great habitats, and hunt species to extinction, we console ourselves with the thought that we are preserving many species in zoos and wildlife parks.
As the owner and operator of two such parks – Howletts and Port Lympne in Kent – you would expect the Aspinall Foundation, founded by my late father John, to argue that it is sometimes right to keep animals in captivity. Although we do agree that there are times when the interests of the species can be best served by animals being kept in captivity, we believe that it is scandalous that so many zoos around the world remain packed with often miserable animals, kept in unnatural conditions where they remain incapable of breeding, despite frequently being paired biblically, two by two.
In these zoos, lions, tigers, elephants, rhinos and other wonderful creatures exist in these conditions largely, if not solely, for humans to gawp at, on the pretext that they and their children are being educated about the wonders of the natural world. This view may have been partially justified up to the advent of the digital age, and the spread of information via television. Today, the idea that zoos provide the sole – or even the best – repository of learning is risible.
At the Aspinall Foundation, we believe that mankind owes it to nature to re-evaluate the role of zoological institutions in the 21st century and to change the way we think about animals in captivity. The ultimate aim should be to render zoos and wildlife parks obsolete – including our own.
The continuing presence of animals in captivity is, we believe, a sign of mankind’s failure. Of course, we are not anarchists or Luddites. There is certainly a role for such animal collections for at least the next two or three decades. But it can no longer be for the simple collection and display of animals.
Rather, the beating heart of any such institution, anywhere in the world, must be true conservation. This means that the rationale for maintaining collections of wild animals – always, preferably, in wildlife parks with large open spaces – has to be the protection of endangered species, coupled with sustainable breeding programmes and projects to reintroduce them to the wild. The ultimate aim should, wherever possible, be the return of the captive and captive-bred creatures with whom mankind is privileged to share the planet.
The Aspinall Foundation has worked tirelessly to become a world leader in the captive breeding of endangered species. Our animal parks have seen the births of 135 gorillas, 33 black rhinos, 123 clouded leopards, 33 Javan gibbons, 104 Javan langurs and 20 African elephants. Our charity manages conservation projects in Congo, Gabon, Indonesia and Madagascar, as well as providing financial support to partner projects around the world. We are dedicated to helping prevent some of the most endangered species on the planet from becoming extinct.
We do this through restoring, wherever possible, animals to their natural habitats and by protecting those habitats. Between 1996 and 2006, we released 51 gorillas in the Congo and Gabon – into an area of some million acres which had been the first large wilderness area to see gorillas hunted to extinction. In the coming year, the foundation is planning to release from its parks an entire family of 11 lowland gorillas, six Javan gibbons and eight Javan langurs. Three black rhinos have already been released this year, and are all doing well.
The work is not easy, and requires dedication and resources. But it offers a possible blueprint for the future of animal conservation, away from the confines of crowded zoos – which serve better to illustrate the arrogance of man than the glory of the animal world he has done so much to destroy. We believe in the right of animals to coexist on our planet, and that the wilderness is Earth’s greatest treasure. We must all act now to save it.
- Zoos and wildlife parks are no way to treat an animal (telegraph.co.uk)
- London Zoo should close because it is ‘sign of our failure as a species’, says campaigner (standard.co.uk)
- The beasts from Brazil: country aims to clone endangered species (guardian.co.uk)
- Zoos of New Zealand (gorentals.co.nz)
- South Africa Rhino Poaching Leads To 455 Dead So Far In 2012 (huffingtonpost.com)
- Guest commentary: Zoo’s work to save endangered species gets noticed (stltoday.com)
- Top 10 International Zoos And Animal Sanctuaries (essentialtravel.co.uk)
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