They might be best known as convenient days out for the kids, but zoos often step in to conservation situations where all else has failed. Take the scimitar-horned oryx, which once roamed central Chad in large numbers. Civil unrest during the 1980s saw the species declared functionally extinct in the wild. Between 2009 and 2013, the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) spearheaded efforts to reintroduce captive-bred oryx to Chad; numbers are now growing.
Of course, not everyone agrees with zoos. A stream of bad press, including the revelation in 2016 that 486 animals had died in just four years at South Lakes Safari Zoo in Cumbria, has exacerbated calls for their closure. For some, keeping wild animals in cages cannot be justified. But, according to Andrew Terry, director of conservation and policy at ZSL, the money that zoos bring in is vital. ‘Everything that we do from a science and conservation perspective is founded on the funding and donations that come through the zoos.’
Because of this, the arrival of Covid-19 brought trouble. The pandemic forced zoo closures from mid-March to mid-June, placing an unprecedented strain on finances. With fixed costs of £2.3 million per month, ZSL is forecasting £20 million losses for 2020. Both Whipsnade and London zoos were able to re-open from 15 June at restricted capacity. A public fundraising campaign spearheaded by Sir David Attenborough raised just over £1 million and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced a £100 million rescue package for zoos. But wildlife in remote regions may have already lost out.
‘During lockdowns, foremost was securing the safety of our teams across the world. Then we had to enter bilateral discussions with the 30 or 40 different funding relationships for our conservation projects,’ says Terry.
Lockdowns in countries where ZSL is working on conservation projects have also brought challenges. ‘Many people in fragile regions are losing income. Out of necessity, they could revert to unsustainable harvesting or practices that negatively impact the wildlife we’re trying to conserve,’ says Olivia Couchman, conservation capacity manager for ZSL’s EDGE (Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered) arm. With ZSL funding, EDGE conducts scientific studies into the world’s most endangered animals to help protect them from extinction. In many regions with EDGE projects, such as India and Latin America, large numbers of people have had to move through protected areas when travelling from urban centres back to families in rural settings. ‘With incomes restricted, a forest or area previously protected becomes an essential resource for survival,’ says Couchman.
EDGE’s Chacoan peccary conservation project in the Chaco Forest of Argentina (also known as javelinas, peccaries are pig-like hoofed mammals) works with local communities to slow the incursion of industrial agriculture into critical peccary habitats. ‘Most of our activities have been put on hold,’ says EDGE fellow Micaela Camino, who leads the project. ‘Still, we have found a way to keep on working by creating a radio show instead of workshops.’
ZSL hope that governments, as part of their Covid recoveries, can build more resilience. ‘The tourism model has worked for years, but Covid-19 has highlighted that there is no silver bullet. We need to diversify conservation models,’ says Terry.