Odense, Denmark - As a sixth mass extinction sends shock waves through whole categories of species, modern zoos and aquariums stand as leading sources of conservation funding and safe havens for populations deemed threatened in the wild.
Collectively, members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) attract 10% of the planet population and contribute with more than $350 million annually to conservation programs in the wild, making them the world's third largest funder after World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and The Nature Conservancy.
But how do zoos and aquariums address the growing need for funding programs as more populations face threats due to climate change, disease, human encroachment, and disease?
The answer begins with you, the visitor, according to research published today in international journal Nature Communications. Zoos and aquariums that see more visitors also contribute more funding to conservation activities on site and in the wild. Which leaves zoo and aquarium directors asking the same question that these researchers asked: What compels people to come? Is it the large, iconic species of mammals? Or is it more?
The study, "A system wide approach to managing zoo collections for visitor attendance and conservation in the wild," conducted by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, the National University of Ireland, Galway, University of Southern Denmark and global non-profit Species360, finds that - yes - attendance is higher at zoos where large, iconic animals like rhinos, tigers, and bears reside.
"Our findings show that charismatic animals in the care of accredited zoos and the visitors that come to see them, are helping to make a difference by driving much needed conservation actions", says co-author Associate Professor and specialist in species conservation, Dalia Conde, University of Southern Denmark and lead of the Conservation Demography section at the Interdisciplinary Center on Population Dynamics (CPop). She is also Director of Science at Species360.
However, according to Conde the zoos and aquariums can do more:
"By holding 16% of the planet's threatened species, with an unmatched knowledge on animal biology, medicine, welfare, and high number of visitors, they are uniquely positioned to help avert one of humanities major crises".
She expresses the enormous power of these communities by saying:
"In contrast with the past five mass extinctions in the Earth's history, the current extinction crisis is human driven. This is good news, because it means we are in a position to solve it! And zoos and aquariums still have much room to reach their full conservation potential."
Co-author Dr. Kevin Healy, co-author of the study and Lecturer at the National University of Ireland, Galway, adds:
"While having big charismatic animals is one way to gather an audience, having a more unusual collection of species is an alternative way to drive gate receipts and with them conservations fund" .
An example could be a collection of many different butterfly species or threathened amphibians.
This was found by modelling the relationships between attendance, animals, conservation, and other factors for 450 zoological institutions worldwide.
Several factors, including size and variety of species, influence attendance and conservation funding at zoos and aquariums, according to the study published Natural Communications and authored by researchers at Trinity College Dublin, the Center on Population Dynamics at University of Southern Denmark, University of St. Andrews, and National University of Ireland, Galway, and Species360.
The study provides "global evidence to suggest that zoos don't need to compromise their economic viability and entertainment value in order to have a significant value to conservation." said co-author of the study, Yvonne Buckley, Professor of Zoology at Trinity College Dublin.
"Zoos and aquariums attract more than 700 million people annually around the world. That's an unparalleled audience for conservation education," said co-author Andrew Mooney, PhD Candidate in Trinity's School of Natural Sciences.
Central to the study's findings is the Species360 Zoological Information Management System (ZIMS), which has grown to one of the largest sets of wildlife data worldwide. Over 1,200 zoos and aquariums in 99 countries use ZIMS to curate and share information on thousands of animals in their care. ZIMS data analysis, in turn, is a key source for scientists working with organisms such as IUCN Species Survival Commission, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), and the Wildlife Trade Monitoring Network (TRAFFIC), to sustain populations, improve animal welfare, fight illegal trade, and more.
Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) together conduct 115 different reintroduction programs, more than 40 of which are designed to bolster populations of species listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act.