The role of zoos in Conservation

“This we know: The earth doesn’t belong to men; men belong to Earth.. This we know: Everything’s connected, like blood that connects family”. This quote is from a letter written by the Indian Chief Seattle to a Washington General, in the 19th century.

Therefore, Earth doesn’t belong to men. Everything that happens to nature will happen to us. Nature is a common language. When we’re irresponsible and careless of how we treat our home, we are sending a message, and Nature responds.

111 years ago, when North American ecologist Rachel Carson was born, climate change was light years away from becoming a global concern. She died of cancer in 1964. Rachael Carson proved to be the pioneer of American Environmentalist awareness. Single-handedly, she had created one of the most important though revolutions.

“Spring now comes unheralded by the return of the birds, and the early mornings are strangely silent where once they were filled with the beauty of bird song. It’s a silent spring”, she wrote.

Can you see how nature talks to us?

Released in 1962, the book Silent Spring became an international phenomenon. The next year, Rachael Carson testified to the North American Congress, suggesting the adoption of health protection measures due to environmental problems. By this time, the book had already been translated to 14 countries. The year after that, 40 US states had adopted laws to control the use of pesticides. President John Kennedy ordered a scientific study to be made about pesticides and their impact in the environment. 10 years after Silent Spring was released, the DDTs (pesticides developed after WW2 to eradicate mosquitoes that caused malaria and typhus) had been banished from the US.

After the publication of the book, there was a growth in the public concern regarding the environment. This movement peaked with the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the creation of an international holiday entitled Earth’s Day, both in 1970. The conference of the United Nation concerning Environmental health marked the year 1972, calling it an “ascension phase” to modern Environmentalism.

The industrial revolution opened new pathways to produce products and generate energy, freeing mankind from depending on the surrounding environment. Nowadays, we deforest jungles, drain rivers and build enormous cities… As the world is changed to fit our needs, thousands of habitats have been destroyed, as species ceased to exist. As Yuval Harari, I believe that our blue and green planet is slowly becoming a giant plastic shopping centre.

Are we really going to allow that to happen?

The quick expansion of the human population and the unsustainable usage of our resources have had tremendous effect on the world’s biodiversity, which is decreasing at speeds never seen before. Life on Earth is at risk.

Most scientists believe that we’re experiencing the sixth mass extinction our planet has faced. Species are disappearing in unnatural, unparalleled speeds. Praised biologist Edward Wilson defends that this crisis is entirely due to mankind. Tom Lovejoy, a biodiversity specialist, defends that half of all species are doomed to extinction. In the next 25 years, one quarter of all mammals will be gone, as well as 1 in 8 birds will face annihilation. Scientists have already named this era the antropoceno period in the history of the planet.


If we keep on like this, by the time we have grandchildren, polar bears are just going to be pictures on the internet, and penguin will only be Penguin Books[1].

In order to avoid this mass extinction, it’s necessary to create species protection mechanisms, prioritizing those who are already at risk of extinction. The procedure to save earth includes the storage of seeds and embryos, zoological institutions, terrariums, aquariums and vivariums and the creation of sanctuaries and natural parks. In the latter, not only are we protecting the endangered species, as we are preserving their environment and consequentially, conserving the diverse ecosystems.

With more than 700 million visitors annually, zoological institutions all over the world are an unmatched platform regarding the involvement of the major public in conservation. According to a study published by the magazine Science (March 18 of 2011), Zoos have become a fundamental piece in the protection and conservation of endangered animal species.

These locations allow species to reproduce in an environment similar to that in the wild, and, when these new specimen are ready to have an autonomous life, they are reallocated to their natural habitat. The trades between zoos avoid consanguinity and promote genetic variability, which, potentially, may contribute to assure the species survival.

Recently, Lisbon’s Zoological Garden was chosen as a partner by the Russian government to lead a plan for the Persian Leopard (Panthera pardus saxicolor). The plan consists of reintroducing this species back into their natural habitat, in Caucasus. This species is threatened mainly due to the fragmentation of the habitat, poachers and the decrease of their natural prey. In Lisbon’s Zoo, this species has thrived. In the last years, the same pair has had 8 cubs, fruit of the impeccable work of the staff and veterinarians alike. The operation focuses in reallocating the cubs to Socchi National Park. The parents are already there, restarting their life thanks to the Zoos habitat emulation techniques.

Nowadays, Zoos focus more on the wellbeing of the animal rather than on the visitors’ experience. In a matter of a century and a half, since the first zoo was opened to the public in 1847, the animal’s enclosures have turned from a cement and steel box[2] to a wide and natural den that possesses different techniques to better emulate the animal natural habitat. From background sounds, to waterfalls and complex tree systems, behavioural enrichment[3] is present in nowadays zoos.

Spread all over the world, zoos are accessible to a great part of the global population and care for a large sum of all species. This way, they act near the community but also close to nature, no longer serving as living museums to present their collection of animals, but mainly collaborating with the conservation ex situ[4] of the species that they care for, and in situ[5] through a network of partnerships and investigation projects.

Zoos present themselves as an instrument to spark the interest of people for the natural world, far beyond the great cities and urban life. Directly or indirectly, these locations contribute to counter act the climate changes and the consequent preservation of nature and biodiversity. By coaching the visitors to the problems that affect animals and plants, zoos guides motivate people to become self-aware of their actions, thus leading to the creation of a more sustainable society.

For millennia, the human kind has exploited the Earth without considering the costs. Now, with species in extinction or already extinct, the world getting hotter, and the sea level rising, Earth is finally retaliating. It’s up to us to realise what we’ve done and to try and fix this. As Chief Seattle said, “Everything’s connected, anything that happens to Earth will happen to its children.” Remember, Nature is talking, and it’s up to us to respond.



Diogo Gomes

Aluno do 11º ano do Colégio Valsassina, Turma 1A

Candidatura à Missão JRA – Jardim Zoológico de Lisboa, 2019

[1] Consulted in 7.02.2019

[2] Consulted in 5.02.2019

[3] Consulted in 7.02.2019

[4] Consulted in 4.02.2019

[5] Consulted in 6.02.2019

João Diogo Teixeira Gomes