Do zoos really help conservation?
Sarah Purton, Des Moines, IA
Black-footed ferrets. Condors. Red wolves. They might have gone extinct if not for zoos. Much of the conservation work of zoos and aquariums happens behind the scenes, and the 175 million people who visit them each year may not know the extent of their efforts.
In 2011 facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) put $136 million into field conservation (that figure excludes funds for caring for resident animals or education). The money paid for, among other endeavors, the rehabilitation and release of birds and turtles affected by oil spills, and warden positions at national parks in developing countries. “These are truly projects that have an impact on animals in the wild,” says Shelly Grow, an AZA senior conservation biologist.
Zoos typically take in species that are close to blinking out. When the number of wild California condors plummeted to 20 in the 1970s, institutions brought them all into captivity until they rebounded enough to be re-released. Today 233 of the roughly 400 closely monitored scavengers fly free.
Other efforts to conserve species include the San Diego Zoo’s project to collect and freeze animal tissue and cell cultures, banking the genetic material for potential future use. And the Amphibian Ark will keep frogs and toads threatened with the deadly chytrid fungus in captivity until they can be safely reintroduced into the wild.
Still, says Grow, the main function of zoos and aquariums is to raise awareness of the need for conservation beyond enclosures.
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