“Ex-situ” conservation, meanwhile, takes place outside of the animals’ natural habitats, usually back at the zoo and often involving international captive breeding programmes. These studbooks can outline suitable genetic matches for breeding, to maintain a sustainable captive population of a certain species and ensure genetic variation.
Species such as the golden lion tamarin, Arabian oryx, Przewalski’s horse, the European bison, and even the common dormouse have at some point been reliant upon captive breeding so as not to become as dead as the Dodo.
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Education & research
In the UK at least, zoos must have a written education strategy and an active education programme. If you have been to an accredited zoo recently you will have noticed they use games and technology to go way beyond these basic requirements.
Research within zoos often looks at animal behaviour or welfare, helping to ensure the animals are well housed and fed. Other research investigates the impact humans have on the zoo animals, from the visitor effect to the relationships which can be formed between the animals and their keepers. I recently investigated the human-animal relationship between zoo animals and the keepers.
Research also focuses on biological functioning of animals. Much of this is work that cannot be conducted in the wild if the animals live in remote or inhospitable areas. To take one recent example: Italian scientists who wanted to investigate the Vocal Repertoire of the African Penguin made recordings of a captive colony in a Turin zoo.
Overall, zoos provide opportunities to observe and engage with exotic animals, many of which may be threatened with extinction in the wild. Seeing them up close can spark a passion for biology, conservation and the environment.
So next time you decide to visit a zoo, take a deeper look at the animal care and information that is provided for you. You may become a defender of zoos and the vital work they do. But please: don’t enter their enclosures.