Once upon a time, zoos existed
solely for entertaining people.
by Rene S. Ebersole
Beneath an umbrella of leaves and branches, wildlife biologist Omari Ilambu starts down a path through the heart of an African rainforest. The earthy aroma of fungi and ferns floats in the warm, humid air, and a cacophony of chirps, croaks, and clicks resonates in Ilambu's ears. Before long he spies something white moving in thetreetops. Looking more closely, he recognizes the wispy cloaks of several black-and-white colobus monkeys lounging on a braid of branches. As Ilambu peers up at the monkeys, a broad, toothy grin streaks across his face. "How impressive!" he declares. "Looking at the animals increases my motivation to try and protect them."
Ilambu, 42, who works for the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), has spent most of his life in forests like this in his native country, the Democratic Republic of Congo, hoping for glimpses of gorillas. His passion for them led him to his recently completed graduate degree in wildlife biology at Yale.
Standing still, he hears something rustling in the brush. Through a break in the vegetation, a tuft of brown fur and a pattern of stripes come into view. It's an okapi--the rare forest cousin of the giraffe--lapping up leaves with its long, blue tongue and looking at Ilambu with liquid eyes.
Then, in a flash, the trance is broken: An airplane roars overhead, and schoolchildren storm down the trail. One runs toward the okapi, pointing and shouting, "Is that a zebra?"
No, this isn't the forest of Ilambu's childhood. In fact, he's thousands of miles from Central Africa--in New York City, at the Bronx Zoo's $43 million African rainforest exhibit, the Congo Gorilla Forest. The six-and-one-half-acre exhibit, which opened in July 1999, is the largest simulation of an African rainforest ever built. It is home to more than 300 animals, including 22 gorillas--the largest breeding group of lowland gorillas in North America. What's more, it's the first zoo exhibit of its kind to provide a visitor-directed link to the wildlife and habitats it displays. Every penny of each visitor's $3 admission fee to the exhibit goes to habitat protection, scientific research, or environmental education in Central Africa.
The Congo Gorilla Forest may be the first exhibit of its kind, but it marks a growing trend. Less than a decade ago, zoos considered themselves modern Noah's Arks that, through captive-breeding programs and reintroductions, would rescue endangered species from an approaching flood of extinctions. Today, while captive breeding remains an important conservation tool, zoos are moving beyond the ark approach and toward protecting wildlife in wild places. They may well have no other choice. During the next 20 years, some scientists predict, as much as a quarter of the world's wildlife could vanish. "Hundreds if not thousands of species--both familiar and obscure--could be lost within our lifetimes," says Michael Hutchins, director of conservation and science for the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA). "This is clearly not the time for zoos to sit on the sidelines."
The roots of zoos extend back thousands of years, to ancient Egypt, where wild animals were caged and worshiped. Later, during the age of Aristotle, collections of exotic animals became symbols of power and wealth, and rulers competed to acquire the greatest number of species for their private menageries. Eventually, the menageries moved beyond the courtyards and into urban centers. But it wasn't until the late 19th century that the word zoo was coined, as an abbreviation for London's zoological garden, where the objective was science rather than "vulgar admiration," according to its founder, Sir Stamford Raffles. Despite Raffles's intentions, however, zoos persisted as popular places for entertainment, and before long there was one in almost every port.
Most of the first American zoos were typical "postage stamp" collections, in which single animals were housed side by side in metal cages. But by the early 1900s an inventive German was exploring a new idea that would eventually revolutionize the look of zoos throughout the world. In 1907, outside Hamburg, Germany, Carl Hagenbeck, a well-known animal supplier, opened the world's first zoo without bars. In place of steel, Hagenbeck used moats, shrubbery, artificial rocks, and walkways to provide visitors--and animals--with a more natural experience.
Even as Hagenbeck was tearing down the bars, another man was pushing a zoo to reach beyond its gates. William Hornaday, founding director of the Bronx Zoo–based New York Zoological Society--in 1993 it became the Wildlife Conservation Society--was the first to show what a zoo could do for conservation. Besides conducting research that led Congress to pass the Alaskan Game Act and the landmark Migratory Bird Treaty Act, Hornaday spearheaded efforts to restore the nearly extinct American bison to the western plains--one of the world's first animal reintroductions. In the early 1900s bison bred at the Bronx Zoo were shipped to Oklahoma, South Dakota, and Montana, and released into the wild.
Hornaday was a renegade in his era. In 1914 he presented a speech on conservation that expressed his frustration with the zoo community. "Think what it would mean if even one-half the men and women who earn their daily bread in the field of zoology and nature study should elect to make this cause their own!" he said. "And yet, I tell you that in spite of an appeal for help, dating back as far as 1898, fully 90 percent of the zoologists of America stick close to their desk work, soaring after the infinite and diving after the unfathomable, but never spending a dollar or lifting a finger on the firing line in defense of wildlife. I have talked to these men until I am tired, and most of them seem to be hopelessly sodden and apathetic."
Despite this lack of interest, the Bronx Zoo forged ahead during the second half of the 20th century, under the direction of another environmentally progressive William--William Conway. As Conway looked after the Bronx Zoo's legion of animals, he felt the weight of responsibility bearing down on him. "Unlike any other kind of organization," he says, "zoos are faced every day with creatures that look them right in the eye, and that we know are disappearing."
As the environmental movement gained speed during the 1970s and 1980s, Conway continued to extend the function of zoos--or wildlife conservation parks, as he prefers to call them--to the preservation of wildlife and wilderness outside of zoo walls. He helped draft an accreditation program for the AZA that requires member institutions to manage captive animals with conservation in mind. He set the wheels in motion for zoos to adopt species-survival plans that maintain genetic diversity in captivity so that, when needed, animals might be reintroduced to the wild. He also transformed the Bronx Zoo's exhibits into lifelike landscapes, built up the Wildlife Conservation Society's conservation program to 326 projects in 52 countries, and led the society's efforts to protect millions of acres of wild habitat.
In 1999, the year of the Bronx Zoo's 100th anniversary, Conway reached the Wildlife Conservation Society's mandatory retirement age of 70. So after nearly 40 years at the helm, he stepped down. "I don't think retirement is ever a good idea," says Conway, who is still active at the zoo and is now a member of Audubon's board of directors. Still, before leaving, he had witnessed the opening of the Congo Gorilla Forest, thereby realizing his vision for a zoo exhibit that could truly make a difference. The exhibit's mantra: Discover. Involve. Protect. "Discover the facts [through scientific research]. Involve the local people. Protect the wildlife," explains Conway. "It's a trinity of wildlife conservation."
So far the exhibit has raised more than $2.5 million for conservation in Central Africa, where civil wars are raging and wildlife is disappearing at an alarming rate. "Those funds are already making an impact," says Amy Vedder, the director of the WCS's Living Landscapes Program. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), local people are being trained as "ecoguards" to patrol protected forests and guard against poachers. In Gabon's Lopé Reserve, a new interpretation center is teaching local schoolchildren about their native wildlife. In the Central African Republic, researchers are studying elephant communication in hopes of learning how to detect population changes more accurately than they can with the current method of counting dung piles. And habitat is being protected at the edge of Nouabalé-Ndoki National Park, in the Congo Republic (not to be confused with the neighboring DRC). Next to the park lies a 100-square-mile chunk of pristine forest chock-full of chimps, gorillas, and elephants that have seen few, if any, humans. "It's a really special place," says Vedder, "a virgin stand that didn't even undergo rubber tapping way back when it was a colonial activity." Until recently, that forest, the Goualogo, was slated for logging. Now, thanks to funds raised at the gorilla exhibit and an agreement between the WCS, logging companies, and the government, the Goualogo will soon be added the park.
Not all zoos are good zoos. there are still some where animals pace metal cages and cramped outdoor enclosures. And even the best zoos still take some animals from the wild, although captive breeding continues to reduce this number. But no matter which way you look at it, a wild animal in a zoo equals one less animal in the wild. Zoos are charged with the responsibility of balancing such costs with the benefits of education and conservation. Unfortunately, some are simply not up to the task.
Still, many zoos--most of them accredited by the AZA--are joining the conservation crusade. More than half of the association's 196 member institutions contribute to 1,370 conservation projects in 86 countries, says the AZA's Hutchins. "Zoos are seeing the light."
In Melbourne, Florida, the seven-year-old Brevard Zoo--one of the newest and smallest zoos in the United States--recently reached out to the Caribbean island of Dominica, the only island in the Windward chain with an intact original rainforest. Nestled within that forest is a wealth of wildlife, including rare imperial and jaco Amazon parrots. Two years ago the Brevard Zoo helped the Rare Species Conservatory Foundation raise $750,000 to buy land for a new 10,000-acre national park on Dominica that now includes key nesting habitat for parrots. The Brevard Zoo contributed $15,000 toward the land purchase, provided interpretive displays for the park, and built a captive-breeding aviary nearby for parrots. "One little zoo can't do a whole lot," says Margo McKnight, a spokesperson for the Brevard Zoo. "But we can start."
Meanwhile, zoos are restoring habitat in their own backyards. Ohio's Toledo Zoo has joined forces with the Nature Conservancy and a variety of other partners to reestablish Karner blue butterfly habitat at the conservancy's Kitty Todd Preserve, in Swanton, Ohio. Once common throughout the Upper Midwest and the Northeast, the Karner blue butterfly has disappeared through much of its range because of habitat loss. Many of the lupines that Karner blue larvae feed on have been overtaken by invasive trees or plowed under to make way for development and agriculture. By helping the Nature Conservancy remove invasive trees and replant lupines at the Kitty Todd Preserve, the Toledo Zoo has successfully reintroduced nearly 1,000 captive-hatched Karner blues since 1998. "This project is a way in which we can make a difference in saving a unique habitat close to our area," says Peter Tolson, director of conservation at the Toledo Zoo. "And it's one of many projects that we're carrying out strictly for conservation's sake. We don't display Karner blue butterflies at the zoo. We don't gain anything from this except good publicity."
As important as protecting and restoring habitats is inspiring humans to take care of them. "Zoos and aquariums have the ability to influence a lot of people," says Hutchins. "About 140 million people go through AZA facilities every year. That's half the U.S. population, and more people than attend all professional football, basketball, ice hockey, and baseball games combined." And the assortment of people who visit the zoo is as diverse as the species of animals that live there.
But most people go to the zoo to have fun, not to get educated. So zoos are becoming creative. "What motivates people to get involved with conservation," maintains Eva Sargent, director of conservation and science at the San Francisco Zoo, "is a positive experience with nature and animals." To that end, the San Francisco Zoo is launching an activity-based learning program in which people develop an emotional connection with animals by helping to care for them at the zoo. At the zoo's new lemur exhibit, for example, selected visitors will help keepers hoist browse into the treetops, where hungry lemurs wait. At another exhibit, visitors will work with keepers to create animal-treat "pinatas" to be stalked, torn open, and enjoyed by lions, leopards, and tigers. "All over the zoo, we will be prototyping new experiences--finding out what's fun, doable, and effective for animals and visitors," says Sargent. "A commitment to conservation must come from the heart. Without emotional involvement, no amount of knowledge will move an individual to take action for conservation."
Multimedia exhibits can strike another connection with zoogoers. People who wind their way through the Bronx Zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest eventually find themselves in a dark theater. There they view a powerful eight-minute movie starring Amy Vedder and Omari Ilambu. The film transports viewers to the forests of Central Africa, to marvel at a herd of elephants feeding by a water hole and a group of gorillas hiding in the bush. When, in the movie, Ilambu stumbles upon a shotgun shell in a nest of leaves where a gorilla had slept the previous night, children in the audience breathe a collective "uhhh." But the movie ends on a hopeful note: As the screen goes black, a large curtain slides open and there, beyond a panoramic plate-glass window, is a large group of gorillas resting peacefully in a field of grass and trees. "People are tremendously moved by the movie," says Vedder. "A number of people say they have shed tears."
Still, as far as zoos have come these past few decades, some say they are only beginning to reach their potential. "Zoos didn't start as scientific institutions," says Brian Miller, coordinator of conservation biology at the Denver Zoo. "They started as entertainment parks. And when that legacy of entertainment holds sway in a zoo's decision-making process, it can affect education and conservation. We don't want to just convert a coal-burning furnace to oil," he adds. "If conservation is being promoted as a mission, we need to put our money where our mouth is."
Many people are turned off by the legacy of entertainment. "Environmentalists tend to have a negative reaction to zoos, because we like to see animals in the wild, not in captivity," says John Flicker, Audubon's president. But, he continues, "zoos can be powerful weapons for conservation. They reach into communities that no one else has figured out how to reach and provide an emotional connection to wildlife." By the end of a trip to the Bronx Zoo's Congo exhibit, he says, "people understand what's happening to an ecosystem, and some of them feel empowered to take action." They're even provided with an outlet for that impulse. In several touch-screen voting booths, exhibit visitors can choose what animal--elephant, gorilla, okapi, or mandrill--they want their admission fee used for. Then they can select, from Conway's trinity of wildlife conservation--doing scientific research, involving local people, or protecting habitat--how the animal will be helped.
Omari Ilambu is hoping to see the payoff. "The gorillas have suffered a lot from the civil wars," he says sadly, watching a large silverback gorilla lounge against a log at the Bronx Zoo. Last year Ilambu visited the DRC to do a monthlong survey of gorillas and elephants in Kahuzi-Biega National Park, home to the largest population of eastern lowland gorillas in the world. In the part of the park's highlands surveyed by his team, the gorilla population had fallen by almost half, from 245 to 130. The elephant population was in an astonishing free fall, plummeting from 619 to perhaps as few as 10. The park's lowlands, where the majority of the gorillas live, were too dangerous to survey. In fact, when Ilambu and his team tried, they were fired on by hostile rebels. Luckily, they escaped unscathed, but Ilambu fears the dominating presence of rebels in the park's lowlands could be taking a serious toll on wildlife. "The Congo exhibit is a very powerful way of spreading the message that these animals need protection," he says, as a light rain begins to fall in the Bronx. The gorillas take cover under a rocky ledge, and a mother clutches her baby close to her chest. "For me, it takes me home," he adds. "I feel quite close to my forest here."
Rene S. Ebersole, a science and environmental writer, is a regular contributor to Audubon. She lives in Connecticut.