It's all happening at the Zoo

New moral imperative: Zoos go outside their fences to fund conservation

The shrieking birds drown your footfalls as you make your way through trees and vines. Musty forest odors fill your head. You wonder, following leopard tracks through the hollowed tree trunk, how the animals sleep in this riot of noise. And then you freeze as a regal gorilla locks your gaze. All that stands between you and the gorilla are several yards, dense bushes - and a thick glass barrier.

This could be the Congo rain forest - if it weren't for the flowing crowd of giddy school children.

The new, $43 million exhibit at the Bronx Zoo is more than a man-made enclosure for endangered creatures from that rain forest. Every penny of the $3 entrance fee goes directly to conservation efforts in central Africa. At the end, after visitors learn how hunting and deforestation are threatening this cradle of biological diversity, they get to choose whether their contribution goes to habitat protection, scientific research, or education in the Congo region.

This exhibit represents a growing trend: Zoos and aquariums are going outside their fences to contribute directly to conservation efforts in the wild. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the earth is losing 100 species a day, and that at the present rate of extinction, almost a third of the world's animal and plant species could be gone in 20 years.

Against this backdrop, the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) has begun requiring zoos to contribute directly to wildlife conservation to retain their accreditation. While it will take the efforts of biologists, governments, and citizens around the world to arrest the destruction of natural habitat, zoo officials say, zoos have a moral obligation to lead the drive.

Now it's a matter of zoos finding the expertise and funds to devote to conservation. Already, they have staffs of experts in animal behavior, breeding, nutrition, and health - knowledge that can directly influence the success of conservation efforts.

This new requirement is a change in the strategy that has driven zoo activities for more than 20 years. For decades they have tried to be like Noah's ark - the last refuge for animals extinct in the wild, where the species could replenish and be prepared for future return to the wild.

Because the number of endangered animals is so much greater than the space in zoos, they are saving that strategy for many animals that can't be protected otherwise.

"You cannot save all the world's species, try as you might," says Richard Lattis, president of the AZA. "In that case, you deal with specific instances where you can make a difference."

Across the country, zoos large and small are building direct conservation efforts into their programs - whether it means contributing to habitat research for black rhinos in South Africa or reintroducing American burying beetles into a neighborhood ecosystem.

Large, well-funded zoos in San Diego, the Bronx, and Washington, have been leading the charge for decades with million-dollar conservation projects around the world. In the past few years, mid-size and smaller zoos have been joining in.

"Zoos ... are moving to being conservation organizations by having their staff get involved in zoo conservation projects at a variety of levels," says Steve Thompson, director of conservation and science at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. They are starting scientific conservation and research programs, and hiring professionals to administer them.

The AZA says there are roughly 700 zoo-sponsored conservation projects in 80 countries, which involve nearly half the 184 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums.

Lisa Dabek, conservation director for the Roger Williams Park and Zoo in Providence, R.I., says her expertise on tree kangaroos and her background in conservation issues come together in a field project to help protect the endangered Matchies tree kangaroos. Like most other international projects, this one involves politics, negotiation, education, and a strong science background.

Two years ago, Dr. Dabek negotiated an agreement with the Papua New Guinea government to do research on the Huon Peninsula, the only place in the world where the endangered Matchies tree kangaroos are found. She, a graduate student, and a group of villagers are working to count how many are left in the wild.

Dabek says what they've learned from zoo-dwelling tree kangaroos has helped them in their field project.

"Research you can't easily do in the wild you can do in zoos," Dabek says. "For so many animals there is so little we know."

For example, they've learned that tree kangaroos breed only once every two years, so they are slow to replenish.

"We were able to talk to the hunters, who say tree kangaroos are their favorite meat," Dabek says. "We said, 'If you are going to be killing tree kangaroos, you are going to have a bigger effect on their population than with others,' " such as opossum. "It was really helpful to be able to say that."

They hope to use this knowledge to create protected areas for the tree kangaroos in their natural habitat, and to educate the local population, which relies on subsistence hunting.

"We have been working with the village landowners to create a wildlife management area where they set aside a portion of their hunting land as part of their reserve," Dabek says. "The animals can breed in a certain area, and the farmers can keep hunting.

"One of our main goals is not to stop local hunting but to make it a sustainable hunting practice," she adds. "It's part of their culture. They eat tree kangaroos, and they use the furs for their cultural ceremonies. I have no right as a conservation biologist to go in and tell them what to do."

But it comes down to one question, she tells the hunters: Do you want your children and grandchildren to be able to hunt?

Funding conservation projects may present the hardest challenge for zoos. Not all of them have the budget to create a conservation department to employ people like Dabek.

While Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo has had a conservation director for more than a decade, it has opted to fund programs through small-grants that are emulated by scores of other zoos. It gives about $65,000 a year to 10 or 12 Latin American conservationists doing projects in their native countries.

Even with the help of zoos, arresting the destruction of natural habitat remains an ominous job, says William Conway, who recently retired as president of the Wildlife Conservation Society.

"I think that most conservation efforts are failing," he says. "But my suspicion is that zoos are going to gradually move to the forefront of the battle.... Every major city in the world has a zoo. And the zoo has an extraordinary base that other organizations, like the natural history museums, do not have."

With 120 million visitors going to American zoos and aquariums each year, they have something that university research departments and wildlife foundations don't, Dr. Conway says: the ability to appeal to the hearts and minds of the public.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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