The perennial question that still revolves around the concept of zoos or zoological garden is whether it is moral and acceptable for humans to confine animals in cages for entertainment or education or awareness or captive breeding. Several respected and dedicated animal right activists around the planet have been demanding complete closure of zoos; and to set the animals back into their natural ecosystem and habitats or advocating for more progressive animal rights. On one end of this spectrum are conservationists, foresters, and ecologists who sincerely believe that zoos have n important role to play in educating the public and making them aware of the spectacular biodiversity of the plant so that the public become more caring and responsible towards conserving natural ecosystems and environment.
While the other extreme ends calls for freedom for animals and advocating for the animals to live and thrive in their own natural ecosystems and habitats; free from any confinement or cage or enclosure. They insist that no matter how progressive and animal friendly modern zoos are in their basic philosophies; and no matter how great the zoo infrastructure is for mimicking natural ecosystems; they can never be equal or anywhere near the quality of wild natural habitats. Hence any confinement in the zoos actually violates the right of a helpless and defenseless animal as an individual species co inhabiting the planet with us; and must be returned to the wild. The debate will continue as is expected in any democratic society; however, honestly speaking we could not possibly undermine the role of modern zoos in education and awareness of the public. Furthermore, we also can not under estimate the need for modern zoo facilities for the purpose of multiplication through captive breeding of several endangered species for the purpose of conservation as well as restoration of degraded natural habitats and ecosystems.
Traditional or conventional zoos have travelled a long distance over time in transforming into knowledge centers for animal health, nutrition, behavior and conservation. They have been serving as interpretation centers for better understanding of the delicate human-animal interactions and contributed greatly in the species conservation program through captive breeding around the planet. All these could not be achieved by releasing confined animals overnight into the wild. Furthermore, many zoo bred animals are completely cut of from their wild instincts and habitats for generations; and may not even be able to adapt to their natural ecosystems; and even die, thereby further compromising their dwindling numbers.
The knowledge gathered in the zoos and aquariums by dedicated keepers, curators, vets, breeders, ecologists, conservators and researchers over several centuries across different generations in closely studying wild animals like mammals, birds, reptiles and fishes could be actually used in saving them in the wild. To be successful in proper conservation of a species that is threatened or endangered or critically endangered in the wild; we need to know about them in detail. Zoos provide some if not all opportunities to know them intimately. That knowledge could be applied in saving the species in their wild habitats and ecosystems. Hence undermining the value of modern zoos for their role as Noah’s arc for saving endangered species around the planet is not advisable and appreciable.
Several specie around the planet have been hit hard due to anthropogenic impacts like pollution, Global Warming and Climate Change, human encroachment into sensitive wildlife habitats, over exploitation of natural habitats, rampart poaching, demand for bush meat, trafficking of wildlife and wildlife body parts (like vital organs, glands and reproductive parts, fresh animal excreta, skin, fur, pelt, horns, nails, bones, skulls, scales etc) for illegal wildlife black markets as well as private zoos and entertainment parks, unmonitored forest fires, over grazing in restricted forested areas, diseases and infections, destruction of wildlife corridors for transboundary and migratory species to mention only a few. Under these circumstances several species of invertebrates and vertebrates, like insects, fishes, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals are showing signs of alarming decline beyond the point of natural recovery.
Many endangered or critically endangered species are suffering from genetic bottlenecks due to extremely small size of their populations; and need planed breeding for their future genetic vigor and stability based on modern animal breeding and genetics research. In some cases artificial insemination of the females are necessary to give birth as viable breeding males may or may not be available in the current populations or sub populations or existing males could have less genetic vigor or impacted with communicable diseases and hence genetically inferior for natural breeding purposes. Several endangered species have become so vulnerable in their natural ecosystems due to several anthropogenic factors as discussed above; and could not possibly survive in their natural ecosystems or habitats without human help. For others, the numbers have dwindled to such record low in centuries; that only safe breeding and multiplication in closed enclosure can help the species to survive.
All these scenarios need the support of the modern zoological gardens to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. Several successful examples of species revival through zoo interference can be cited around the planet like Asiatic cheetah, red panda, giant panda, snow leopard, clouded leopard, Siberian tiger, Malayan tiger, Indochinese tiger, Indochinese leopard, pangolin; as well as several species of birds, deer and antelopes, endangered rodents, primates, amphibians and reptiles. Hence in spite of many negative criticisms, the role of modern zoos or zoological gardens in helping to protect and conserve endangered species can not be under estimated at all.
Zoos around the world now collaborate, cooperate, communicate and compensate (4Cs) with one another in several multi-nation based captive breeding programs by exchanging genetic pools for generating high vigor individuals for stabilizing their genetic future. Young animals reared and saved through the zoos could then be released into their natural wild habitats. Zoos therefore can indeed serve as the biblical Noah’s arc in multiplying, protecting and conserving several endangered species around the planet while serving as a tool for mass education and awareness regarding natural world for the public.