Visiting a Zoo This Week? Research Sheds Light on Why You Go, and the Impact on Conservation in the Wild

Date: 07/02/2020

By: Mary Ellen Amodeo, Species360

Size, number, and variety of species combine to attract more zoo visitors, and in turn influence how much funding the institution provides to conservation projects in the wild, according to the study published Natural Communications and authored by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, the Center on Population Dynamics at University of Southern Denmark, University of St. Andrews, and National University of Ireland, Galway.

When you step inside a zoo or aquarium this year, your visit may do more for wildlife conservation than you know. Research published this week in international journal Nature Communications, finds that zoos and aquariums that draw more visitors also contribute more to conservation projects in the wild. According to the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), its members deliver more than $350 million in conservation funding annually.

But as a crisis of extinctions gains momentum worldwide, zoos and aquariums must dramatically increase conservation action and funding to sustain biodiversity of species.

“Climate change and human encroachment are driving a sixth mass extinction, and accredited zoos and aquariums have an immense responsibility to stand for wildlife. Of species assessed as threatened or endangered in the wild, 16 percent now have at least some representative populations within zoos and aquariums. These animals, and their care teams, are a vital resource for the conservation of biodiversity. And we must do more,” said Dalia Conde, Director of Science at Species360 and lead of the Conservation Demography section at the Interdisciplinary Center on Population Dynamics (CPop), University of Southern Denmark.

Accelerating conservation action and funding begins with zoo and aquarium patrons and the animals they come to see, the study found. Researchers at Trinity College Dublin, Species360 Conservation Science Alliance, and NUI Galway, analyzed data for 458 zoos that curate and share information as members of global non-profit Species360. Connections between zoo attendance, animal collections, and conservation funding are shared in the open access, open data paper, “A system wide approach to managing zoo collections for visitor attendance and conservation in the wild.”

“Zoos and aquariums fulfill essential roles as centers for public education, wildlife rehabilitation, scientific research and public entertainment. By better understanding the factors that influence attendance, these institutions can continue to drive conservation programs on site and in the wild,” said Andrew Mooney, PhD Candidate in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences.

The model illustrates how the types and variations of animals residing in a zoo help to influence visitor attendance and conservation funding. Among the take-aways, while not unexpected, is that zoos with large animals such as elephants, tigers and pandas attract higher numbers of visitors. Given the space and resources required to ensure the well-being of these larger animals, however, zoos limit how many they will accommodate.

Beyond these more iconic, well-known species, several other variables can help zoos to encourage attendance. In particular, the study finds that more visitors will also attend zoos with larger numbers of animals, as well as more types and variations of species, and the inclusion of unusual animals. As zoos determine which animals they include within their programs, the model offers data to help guide their decisions.

“WAZA member zoos and aquariums are leading conservation bodies committed to saving species from extinction. When people visit a zoo or aquarium they are not only fostering a connection with wildlife and learning more about these species and the threats they face in the wild, but they are also helping contribute to conservation efforts,” said Martín Zordan, Interim CEO of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).

This research used a global data-set for 458 zoos in 58 countries, including species holdings data from the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) managed by Species360.

Read the full study in Nature Communications. Learn more about Species360 Conservation Science Alliance.

About Species360
Species360 is a non-profit, non-governmental organization serving more than 1,200 zoos, aquariums, wildlife refuges, and research partners in 99 countries. These institutions use the Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS) managed by Species360 to curate and share animal data, contributing real-time demographic, medical, genetic, and population insights for more than 22,000 species and 10,000,000 individual animals, both living and historic.

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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