Recap of the 78th WAZA Annual Conference

The 78th WAZA Annual Conference was held from 8-12 October 2023 in San Diego, US. Hosted by the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance (SDZWA), the attendees met to discuss seminal issues for the zoo and aquarium community. We welcomed over 300 attendees from over 40 regions and countries from all over the world, highlighting WAZA’s global membership and reach. This is the highest number of attendees for any WAZA conference in the last two decades and demonstrates the value of the work that we do for our diverse community. 

On the first day of the conference, Dr Clément Lanthier, WAZA President, and Mr Paul Baribault, President and CEO of SDZWA, shared their opening remarks, welcoming the attendees to the conference. This was followed by Secretary Wade Crowfoot, California’s Natural Resources Secretary, who discussed the value of zoos and aquariums as the world faces a biodiversity crisis. The keynote address by Joel Sartore from Photo Ark also shed light on how zoos and aquariums have a crucial role to play in being key partners in conservation of biodiversity. Taking this theme forward, the WAZA team was also pleased to launch the Reverse the Red Short Guide, highlighting the pivotal role of zoos and aquariums in addressing the decline of biodiversity and safeguarding endangered species. 

The second day of the WAZA conference saw the keynote address by Fanny Cornejo, a Peruvian biologist who has spent more than 16 years in research and conservation of endangered fauna in Peru, with an emphasis on the Tropical Andes. She shared her work with Yunkawasi, a Peruvian non-profit, where she focuses on the creation and management of conservation areas, biological and social research, conservation education programmes and promotion of sustainable development of local communities.

Day three keynote speakers, Lori Perkins, Dr Jackie Ogden, and Dr Kyle Lundby presented on trends in the workforce in zoos and aquariums and sought to understand the barriers that might exist. The day also saw the launch of the IUCN SSC position statement on zoos, aquariums and botanic gardens, a landmark for the zoo and aquarium community. 

On the final day of the conference, Vivek Menon, founder, trustee and executive director of the Wildlife Trust of India, shared his insights about conserving the Asian elephant and the challenges of this.

The day also celebrated the associations that have already met the 2023 Animal Welfare Goal. The WAZA members associations that have met the goal in 2023 are the Zoo and Aquarium Association Australasia (ZAA), the Pan African Association of Zoos and Aquaria (PAAZA), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), the Latin American Association of Zoos and Aquariums (ALPZA), the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), and Canada’s Accredited Zoos and Aquariums (CAZA). 

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the final day of the conference was the Annual General Assembly where the membership met to approve the changes in membership fee, the 2027 Population Management Goal, amongst other discussion items, so as to allow WAZA to work towards the achievement of its ambitious new vision. 

The conference closed with the Gala Dinner and the awards presentation. Lee Ehmke, President and CEO of Houston Zoo, was awarded the prestigious Heini Hediger Award. Lee was a member of the WAZA Council from 2009 to 2020 and served as WAZA President from 2013 to 2015. During his Presidency, Lee championed two key WAZA initiatives: Caring for Wildlife: The World Zoo and Aquarium Animal Welfare Strategy, and Committing to Conservation: The World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy

The Heini Hediger Award is the highest award for professional excellence, named in honour of Heini Hediger, the Swiss biologist known as the father of zoo biology. It represents the pioneering success of an individual who is strongly committed to animal welfare, conservation, environmental sustainability, education, and actively is involved in furthering these causes within their zoo or aquarium and our global community.

Marwell Wildlife, United Kingdom, was awarded the Conservation Award for reintroducing extinct-in-the-wild scimitar-horned oryx. Marwell Wildlife, in collaboration with the Tunisian government, successfully restored the scimitar-horned oryx population and their habitats in Tunisia after an 80-year absence and extinction across its global range. Through reintroductions from various sources since 1987, a metapopulation now spans four protected areas, supported by ongoing post-release monitoring and research since 2000. This initiative aids species recovery in Northern Africa under the UN Convention on Migratory Species and provides a model for large-scale reintroduction efforts, such as those in Chad. Marwell’s engagement in managing the WAZA International Studbook and conservation efforts establishes a link between global ex situ and in situ actions to preserve species.

The two other finalists for the Conservation Award were Dallas World Aquarium’s The Centro de Rescate Amazónico (CREA) in Iquitos and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland Edinburgh Zoo’s Reintroduction of the Eurasian beaver to Scotland. 

The WAZA Conservation Award is granted to an institution for an outstanding, comprehensive, specific conservation programme that has clear objectives and excellent conservation outcomes.

Loro Parque was awarded the Environmental Sustainability Award. The institution has long prioritised sustainability, focusing on reducing ecological impact, conserving energy and water, minimising waste, adopting green energy, eliminating plastic, and seeking eco-friendly products. Loro Parque stands as the first Zero Emissions zoological facility in their group, generating 26 MWh/year of green energy surpassing consumption. 

The two other finalists for this prestigious award were Kolmårdens Djurpark and Toronto Zoo. 

The WAZA Environmental Sustainability Award is granted to an institution for its outstanding, comprehensive environmental sustainability initiatives that advance its commitment and efforts towards environmental sustainability.

And Finally

We would like to thank everyone who contributed to the success of the conference – the host, San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance and all attendees, and we look forward to the 79th WAZA Annual Conference in Taronga Zoo, Sydney. 

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) is the global alliance of regional associations, national federations, zoos and aquariums, dedicated to the care and conservation of animals and their habitats around the world.

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