Since the discovery of ancient Egyptian writing documenting the captivity and entertainment value of wild African game, it is suggested that zoos have been around since 1250 BC[sc:1]. Today there are some 10,000 zoos worldwide – 212 of which have American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) status that adhere to high levels of care, science and conservation for the animals[sc:1].
A growing number of zoos are aspiring to AZA status and many have become proactive in the conservation and protection of wild animals. In 2015, AZA zoos conducted over 2,230 research projects in over 80 countries to help reintroduce endangered species and restore habitats. Most of these projects were carried out in tandem with Nongovernmental Organisations (NGO’s) and private conservation organisations to help achieve the best results for the animals[sc:1].
Part of the AZA’s Program is the Species Survival Plan (SSP) which manages endangered species. This Program achieves successful breeding to help ensure healthy population of animals in a way that is self-sustaining, genetically diverse and geographically spread[sc:2].
The SSPs are also used a research mechanisms by zoos to raise funds to accompany long-term field projects that allow for the better understanding of biology, landscape population and species protection in the wild. There are now over 100 AZA projects covering almost 200 individual species of animals[sc:2].
Zoos are also important institutions for educating the public about conservation. This is achieved through programs such as SSP’s but also general information provision inside the zoo itself. As such, zoos are often cited in the top three most trusted bodies for its messages on wildlife conservation and environmental matters, trailing just behind National Geographic[sc:1].
Examples where zoos have played a fundamental role in the capturing, breeding and releasing of animals into the wild include the Arabian Oryx and the North American Black-footed Ferret[sc:3]. Both of these animals were critically endangered but with the help of zoos have since bounced back; however these two cases could be classed as the exception instead of the rule. In the 20th century it is estimated that only 16 out of 145 (11%) of global species programs were successful in reintroducing wild animals back into the wild. Furthermore, most of these success stories were actually executed by government and private agencies, not zoos[sc:1].
It is also estimated by some experts that on average just three percent of a zoo’s budget is invested in conservation and the rehabilitation of endangered animals. At the same time the rest of the budget is spent on marketing, wages and zoo infrastructure which does very little for helping endangered wildlife[sc:1].
A 2015 study on the impact zoos have for endangered animals in the Journal of Applied Ecology concluded that rehabilitation programs, captive breeding and reintroduction systems fail markedly. This is not because their intentions or operations are poorly actioned, but because they simply do not construct self-sustaining populations which can reproduce with genetic diversity in the numbers necessary for success[sc:3]. It is therefore argued that the most successful system for protecting and ensuring the futures of endangered animals are where the animals – or at least the parents of the animals – are taken from the wild and reintroduced after breeding[sc:4]. This helps with the animals social and natural capacity to survive.