What is Conservation?
In addition to providing an entertaining and educational experience for their visitors, modern zoos play a critical role in wildlife conservation, at home and around the world. Zoos contribute to conservation in four primary ways: research, education, preservation of genetic diversity, and direct support of wild populations and their habitat.
Any successful endeavor begins with knowledge. Likewise, with conservation we must first know as much as possible about the animals we strive to protect. We must know what is necessary to keep the animals healthy in zoos and what is needed to protect and conserve them in the wild. Research provides the answers to these questions. General studies on an animal’s nutrition, physiology, reproduction, social interactions, behavior and genetics provide valuable information that is critical to maintaining a healthy population. Some research is accomplished in zoos; other times research is conducted in a species’ native habitat. Often it is a combination of both. For example, to provide healthy diets for zoo animals we must first know what wild animals eat. However, wild foods often are not available to the zoo, so zoo nutritionists conduct research to formulate diets that supply the same nutrients to the animals. Without good research to ensure a healthy, stable zoo population, many of the zoo’s other conservation goals are not possible. Fort Worth Zoo research projects benefit many species including the Asian elephant, African lion, Jamaican iguana and black rhino.
Education is important both locally and throughout the world. The Fort Worth Zoo’s education department offers classes for all ages throughout the year. Education also plays a role in other countries where the Zoo is working to conserve endangered species. By educating local people, the Zoo can give the local residents an appreciation for the wildlife resources that make their homeland unique and teach them to conserve them.
In the West Indies a poster displaying all the native iguana species was produced and distributed through the Fort Worth Zoo to help educate the island communities. Fort Worth Zoo staff has also organized or participated in classes on the more technical aspects of zoo management in China, Costa Rica, Namibia, Aruba, Indonesia and Italy to name a few. The Fort Worth Zoo produced education resources for classrooms in Namibia to educate school children on lion conservation. In addition, Zoo staff have traveled to Sumatra to hold workshops, educating staff at elephant conservation centers on modern techniques in elephant husbandry.
Many people believe the endangered animals in the zoo are released to replenish the wild populations. In some rare cases this is true, such as with the Jamaican iguana project that the Zoo spearheads with the Hope Zoo in Jamaica. But more often, zoo populations are kept as a reserve, an insurance policy against extinction. The goal of large zoo populations is to save as much of the species’ wild genetic variability as possible. Just as veterinary care keeps individual animals healthy, properly managed zoo populations keep the species healthy and able to adapt far into the future. The zoo population conserves valuable characteristics that may be necessary in the future to ward off new diseases or withstand global warming. The Fort Worth Zoo participates in several Species Survival Plans that coordinate cooperative breeding programs for endangered species in North American zoos.
Support of Wild Populations
Direct support of wild populations is the newest arena of zoo conservation. Today’s zoo animals are ambassadors for their wild counterparts, providing a living connection between humans and the animals. When humans are spurred to action, their support can make a direct impact on the wild populations. Funds raised in zoos are used for many projects including habitat conservation and restoration, training and equipment for local rangers, providing alternative livelihoods for displaced local residents, research and establishment of park boundaries. The Fort Worth Zoo has helped with such programs for several species, including the cheetah, rhino, Jamaican iguana and the Aruba Island rattlesnake.