The euthanasia of Pole Pole, the last elephant at the UK’s London Zoo, inspired the creation of Born Free, an organization that’s long held a principled position on animals in captivity. It’s been 40 years since Pole Pole’s death, and this November, Born Free is inviting the public to explore whether we can deliver greater support for conservation, biodiversity, ecosystem protection, animal welfare, public education, and effective research by looking “Beyond Zoos”.
On November 29, Born Free Co-Founder and Executive President Will Travers OBE, joins an expert panel including Conservationist and Wildlife Television Presenter Chris Packham to discuss the future of zoos and how we could change the way we approach conservation and the threat of biodiversity loss. We spoke to Travers and Packham ahead of the event to find out more about their feelings going into the discussion, and what changes and key issues they hope to explore.
What is the goal of the Beyond Zoos event?
Will Travers: It’s important to appreciate and understand the meaning of the title of the event, Beyond Zoos, because what we really don't want to do is to have a rerun of every argument, for and against. This is an opportunity to think about better outcomes.
I'm enormously privileged to have a fantastic lineup of panellists. For this event, I have Greta Iori, from the elephant protection initiative who really understands a lot of the community-driven dynamics of what goes on in conservation.
We have Dr Winnie Kiiru, who is the Executive Director of the Impala Research Centre in Kenya, one of Africa's leading conservation centres, but also one of Africa's leading research centres. We also have Damian Aspinall who has two zoos but has become disenchanted based on his own experience with what zoos truly offer and has decided that he is going to move to end the keeping of his zoos and to apply his efforts in other ways of protecting biodiversity.
And then we have Chris Packham, who is well-known as a broadcaster and naturalist, and who also has sort of relevant experience as his partner runs a sanctuary. It was a former zoo on the Isle of Wight, and so we'll be able to explore the role that maybe sanctuaries can play in transitioning away from zoos and towards what I hope is a more plausible and effective future.
Chris Packham: The whole point of our conference is to reach out to people within [the zoo] industry. I have concerns about what we call them, I don't like lumping them together, but for the purposes of communication, zoo animal welfare, and to think about how we transform the keeping of animals in captivity in the future. [We want] to get people to think, converse, and then maybe change their minds.
Why do we need to be having this conversation?
WT: We may each have our ideas about what a better future may look like, but there are going to be some real challenges to get to it. No one's trying to pretend this is easy. Otherwise, it would have been done already.
If one regards the keeping of wild animals in captivity, underpinned by the three key justifications – conservation, education, and research – and treat it as an experiment, I would argue that the experiment has not been a success. The outcomes are too modest for it to claim to be a success. And in that case, if we still believe that conservation, education, and research are important underpinnings for the protection of biodiversity, to slow the decline, halt the decline, and possibly even reverse the decline in biodiversity, faced as we are with a million species staring extinction in the face, then what might those look like?
CP: We've all come to accept that we're in the middle of a biodiversity crisis, we've lost 69 percent of the world's wildlife since 1972, and our wild populations of these animals are in desperate trouble. We have to therefore question what role our zoos are playing in addressing that crisis.
Now, they have certain antiquated ideas that they perpetuate, i.e. that they are repositories of genes and therefore species, and they will practice the breeding of those species in captivity so that they can be reintroduced into the wild. It's quite easy to undo that in many instances, not all, but in many instances, because there is no wild left. That's why those species are imperilled.
Case in point, London Zoo has Sumatran tigers. Sumatra’s forest has disappeared by 95 percent since 1990. So where are they going to put those tigers? What habitat is available for them to securely release those animals back into the wild at this point? I would argue that there is no current capacity to do that. So that's not really an effective conservation tool when it comes to Sumatran tigers, is it? Keeping them in captivity and breeding them. So I think there are problems.
The other thing is, given that we have a better understanding of a plethora of things such as their cognitive function and social requirements that we cannot replicate it in captivity. A couple of species that I would immediately draw upon are polar bears, wild dogs, any cetacean at all. My argument, therefore would be: Why don't we just let those populations that are in captivity, that very clearly can't be put back into the wild, [why can’t they] just be allowed to effectively die out of the course of their lives, and not be replaced?
Chris, what are you looking forward to exploring?
CP: I'm going to be interested in some questions about how the visitors interact with the animals and interact with the staff [in zoos], and basically how that experience can be measured to be positive for better understanding and affinity for wildlife. I know a few years ago, studies were done in Edinburgh University about how much time people spent reading the interpretive material [at zoos], compared to looking at the animals, time spent in the café or restaurant, or gift shop.
I’ve never seen that published and I would like to know because if that sort of data is available within the zoo community then one could argue that they have the capacity to improve those things. They could basically say, “Okay, well, we know where our engagement is failing and we know why because we've measured it.”
I want to see that data.
And Will, why is now the time for change?
WT: It would be madness to say that no zoo has ever contributed to a conservation outcome or educational outcome, that no research in a zoo has ever been worthwhile. But it's about the scale and impact of that work. And from our analysis, the scale and impact cannot possibly justify [the cost].
So, either we continue, or we make a bold decision that we must fund nature in situ. We must restore habitats and restore biodiversity and increase in line with the 2030 target of 30 percent of terrestrial land protected.
Let's get real, and we haven't got much time to do it. We've got seven years, let's crack on and make this happen. And that will require us to be ambitious and bold and brave enough to turn away from what we've done in the past and embrace a new paradigm.
Want to join the discussion? Beyond Zoos kicks off on November 29, 2023, and can be attended in person at the Royal Geographical Society, UK, or viewed online.