Posted by: Renee Owens | June 28, 2010

Zoos as advocates of endangered species conservation

Pachyderms in Paradise – or Purgatory?

Below is my 2010 letter to the editor to the local newspaper the San Diego Union Tribune, regarding their recent article extolling the San Diego Zoo’s success at having another African elephant birth.

Zoos like the San Diego Zoo have long expounded on their contributions to conservation by creating a self-sustaining captive population, or at the least, frozen egg and sperm banks. Since we know well that only extremely rarely are captive zoo animals ever be released back into the wild (and at huge expense, e.g. the million dollar California condor), I often wonder just how their captive populations, whether live or as of yet represented by frozen gametes, actually contribute tangibly to real, on-the-ground conservation.

Nothing says conservation like a vat of frozen sperm.

If there is no stable, viable habitat for these endangered (or extinct in the wild) species to live, what good is a frozen zoo of the future, not to mention live captive animals that will never be released?  I don’t know about you, but as a conservation biologist there is nothing I find more morally contentious than using the torch of endangered species conservation to pad the bonuses of  administrators and the like –  especially when these big zoos do have the power and money to carry out real conservation, but rarely choose to do so beyond the conservation of their own very comfortable profits.  This is not a popular topic to shine a light on, and thus neither has it been politically correct among many biologists or environmentalists, but denial does not a good, ethical conservationist make.

And going beyond conservation to humanity: just how compassionate is it to keep the largest brained terrestrial animal of our planet, a highly social herbivore that can cover hundreds of kilometers in days, enclosed in a an acre or  less for its entire life? Kind of like keeping a condor in a cage on your patio, don’t you think?

Applied conservation: let’s hear more success stories.

We know that programs such as CRES (the research section of the San Diego Zoo) have spawned some interesting research (and indeed pay the bills of  many biologists, often a good thing), but we rarely hear of just how much of this research – the majority of which has to do with genetic analysis of captive species – is being applied to the real world, to wild species, and most importantly, to their habitats.

There are some zoological societies associated with zoos that have contributed marvelously to endangered species survival and conservation, but why are these success stories so few and far between? Why aren’t we asking that these zoos who spend hundreds of millions on public relations and purported “conservation initiatives” do more for habitat conservation, since we know this is the logical first (and middle, and often last) step to saving the vast majority of endangered species? Is it really such an unreasonable question to ask, from such powerful institutions who have the ability to educate millions to boot?

Where will the in vitro elephants of the future be released, when even now wild elephants compete with development, farmland, poachers, a black market, and not enough habitat or wildlife corridors to sustain them? Perhaps we should just not worry about it, and trust in the power of capitalism to always do the the best for humans, species and habitats. I don’t know, but I’ve gotta run – looks like there is a sale on baby elephant t-shirts at the gift shop.

Letters: Zoos, elephants and conservation

San Diego Union Tribune

Saturday, June 26, 2010 at 12:02 a.m.

In your June 17 article, “Baby elephant birthrate soars,” you characterized the decision by the San Diego Zoo to import wild elephants for their new enclosure as a “public relations risk.” This is perhaps the understatement of the year. Not only were local animal rights groups against this decision, so were dozens of internationally respected conservation organizations and biologists worldwide. The San Diego Chapter of the Sierra Club also was vehemently opposed; the zoo’s decision was controversial enough to land in the federal courts. Why? Because by importing wild elephants, the United States, on behalf of the San Diego Zoo, violated the Convention on the International Trade of Endangered Species, created to regulate the international trade in wild animals and enhance conservation initiatives globally. For decades, the United States and other nations have been lobbying African nations to support CITES by not trading in wild elephants or parts. We had slowly been achieving results, in part by setting a good example, until this effort was undermined in one fell swoop by the zoo’s decision to boost its profits by importing pregnant wild elephants, international treaty be damned. The zoo did so knowing that maintaining healthy elephants in captivity is extremely difficult, and captive elephants suffer high infant and adult mortalities, a fact recognized by the American Zoological Association.

What your article also failed to mention was that the elephants that already were in residence at the zoo, some for decades, were quietly, during the night, shipped out to other zoos to make room for the newcomers. Three of these discarded animals (Winky, Tatima and Peaches) died shortly after being relocated.

While other zoos across the nation are recognizing the difficulty and questionable ethics of maintaining such a large, socially and physically complex and intelligent species by permanently closing their elephant exhibits, our zoo has denied this reality. Instead, they are applauding their new $45 million elephant enclosure as providing seven acres for these pachyderms to roam; however, the Union-Tribune’s Jeanette Steele reported in 2009 that, in actuality, the elephants can access only three of these acres. Profits garnered by baby elephant births arguably may be justified if they actually were applied in a measurable way to elephant conservation; however, the San Diego Zoo repeatedly has failed to demonstrate any such conservation connection to wild populations, despite giving it much lip service. In fact, the Union-Tribune reported several years ago that the San Diego Zoo spends less than 10 percent of its budget on conservation efforts for all its species.

This begs the question: just how, exactly, does the zoo contribute to the conservation of an endangered species by removing healthy animals from the wild? And practically speaking, what good does a “self-sustaining” captive population in the U.S. do for the wild populations, whose biggest threats are poaching, development and political instability?


Wildlife ecologist, Sierra Club Conservation Committee Chair San Diego


  1. Hello, I am wondering, the pic with the elephant, can you tell where was that taken? I am trying to track a pic of a sad looking young elephant and the wall colour is the same as in your pic here…..thank you 🙂

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