The sustainable zoo: an introduction


In the latter half of the 20th century, it became apparent that humanity was living beyond its means. The exponential increase in the human population, doubling in the past 30 years and standing at 6·7 billion people in 2008 (International Data Base, 2008), has led to an increasing burden on the planet's resources. When these vast numbers of people are combined with a growing demand for higher standards of living, large-scale movement of people from rural areas to urban centres and environmentally costly developments in technology, Planet Earth struggles to cope. It is now estimated that if we continue to exploit Earth at the current rate, we would need more than our one planet to provide the resources of our high-consumption lives (Hails, 2008).

While in the past ‘conservation’ has been something that took place in far-off lands, or in the rural areas of our own countries, it is now a part of how we live. In recent years, there has been a shift from species-focused conservation of high-profile species to conservation of habitats and ecosystems, and we are now entering a phase of conservation of our global climatic system, a conservation movement that requires every individual to play a role and take responsibility for their impact on the world around them.

To this end, the word sustainability, rarely used 20 years ago, has become commonplace in our culture. It permeates discussion of the environment in the popular press as well as in peer-reviewed journals and has led to growing numbers of individuals, businesses, pressure groups and governments seeking to make their own activities more ‘sustainable’ and also to encourage others to do so. But what do we mean by sustainable development? The most commonly used definition is from the United Nations (UN) World Commission on Environment and Development (1987), with sustainable development described as development that ‘meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’. The work of this commission is now commonly referred to as the Brundtland Report after its chair, the Norwegian politician Gro Harlem Brundtland.

However, this has echoes of the Native American proverb, ‘We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children’, and suggests that sustainability as a concept should be something that humans understand well. While there is much discussion of earlier native peoples having led a more sustainable lifestyle, more in synchrony with the natural world, it also more prosaically reflects a far smaller human population and the then relative abundance of natural resources. There are, however, centuries-old examples of sustainable practices implemented in the face of a resource challenge. In Europe, in the early 1700s, timber cutters were faced with the spectre of their unsustainable logging practices leading to the collapse of their livelihoods and, thereafter, communities. They recognized this to be the case and took steps to put in place practices that limited the impacts they made while still providing an income, leading to modern-day sustainable forestry (Freerk Wiersum, 1995).

It is this ability to assess a problem and find a way to change practices, or, perhaps more importantly, the willingness to change practices, that will be crucial to the type of future that humans face on Earth and, thereafter, the impact on other species. Jared Diamond details this aspect of the human psyche in his book Collapse (Diamond, 2006), and notes that those societies unwilling or unable to change are the ones that inevitably face extinction.

In 1992, the Convention on Biological Diversity was established (CBD, 1992). This is perhaps the most important legal instrument governing conservation of the natural world and it establishes clear links between biodiversity conservation and sustainability. The CBD recognizes the role of sustainability, not only in biodiversity itself but also in social and economic terms, and how this ‘triple bottom line’ approach (see Townsend, 2009) relates to current sustainability thinking. The CBD explicitly states as its Objective ‘the conservation of biodiversity, the sustainable use of its components, and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of genetic resources’. The CBD therefore makes implicit that conservation of nature cannot be achieved by conservation measures alone and that sustainable social and economic imperatives must also be implemented in conservation thinking and plans.

The Kyoto Protocol sought to curb emissions of greenhouse gases at national levels, charging individual developed countries with responsibilities as to the levels of climate-change gases released into the environment by their activities (United Nations, 1998). Of the developed world, the majority of nations have signed and the USA, the most high-profile ‘objector’, is now likely to sign with the change of President in January 2009. However, many of the targets set by national governments have not been met, with carbon most commonly still being used at the same or at an increasing rate. Notable exceptions to the protocol include India and China as they are regarded as developing nations. With their vast and increasing populations and demand for resources, their carbon footprint continues to increase at pace. ‘Kyoto 2’ is now in development but can it be any more effective?

While with these existing mandates there have been great strides made in encouraging individuals to ‘reduce, reuse and recycle’, playing their part in the sustainability debate, the challenge is not going away and governments and big business have not yet gone far enough to curb national and international carbon release and to not only reduce their carbon footprint but their ecological footprint as well. To add to this lack of action at national levels, of late, there appears to be a tension developing between the sustainability and climate-change agenda, and that of biodiversity conservation, with many arguing that our increasing concerns about climate change are turning attention away from biodiversity conservation, which in turn could result in climate-change mitigation goals not being met adequately (e.g. ongoing destruction of primary forest areas). What then the niche of zoos in this debate?


In the context of this background, there are a number of actions that zoos and aquariums can take to demonstrate a role for individuals and organizations to not only preserve biodiversity but also make sustainable choices at every level. In addition, if zoos and aquariums are to retain the trust and support of their visiting public, they should demonstrate best practice and leadership in all aspects of our activities that impact on biodiversity conservation, which evidentially includes sustainable use of resources.

For animal collections, there are a number of unique challenges for sustainable use, the first and most obvious of which is the maintenance of sustainable populations of wild animals in captivity. While the definition of conservation used in the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy (WAZA, 2005) is ‘Conservation is the securing of long-term populations of species in natural ecosystems and habitats wherever possible’, for zoos, the securing of long-term populations in collections is the starting point from which they can meet their conservation objectives. This does not make a healthy captive population the ultimate goal; rather, it is a means to an end.

Lees & Wilcken (2009) describe the meaning of sustainable animal collections in zoos and, in particular, the challenges facing zoos in Australasia. The stringent rules governing the import of exotic species into Australia and New Zealand make it difficult for Australasian zoos to take part in international breeding programmes for some species. As no single zoo can maintain a safe population of a threatened species, responsible zoos must work together to maintain ‘meta-populations’. For this to be highly effective, movements of animals worldwide or at least internationally must be a viable option. However, Lees & Wilcken (2009) also lay at least some of the blame at the feet of zoos who have, to a great extent, failed to manage effectively some populations of animals, rare or otherwise.

Walter et al. (2009) additionally look at the effect of legislation on sustainable populations of animals in zoos, in this case the EU ban on wild-caught bird imports. They describe this ban, which was brought on by the threat of Avian Influenza on human health but most likely prompted by economic damage to the poultry industry in Europe. The ban itself should be welcomed and appropriate conservation derogations have been included to safeguard the required import of conservation-dependent species that require ex situ maintenance as a recognized conservation measure. The EU ban should be a highly welcome driver of improved breeding practices in European zoos for non-threatened species, instead of collections relying on additional imports to supplement poor husbandry. Both these papers, while noting that legislation can hinder the maintenance of animal populations, as has been described by other authors (Holst & Dickie, 2007), make clear that zoos should use all appropriate scientific input and the organizational structures available to them through internationally run breeding programmes, such as EEPs (European Endangered Species Programmes) and SSPs (Species Survival Plans). More commonly than is comfortable to acknowledge, these structured breeding programmes fail because of the non-compliance of participants who put institutional needs before viable collective programmes. While disruptive for non-threatened species, this practice becomes a block to effective ex situ conservation needs and could be described more accurately as an anti-conservation action.

Conversely, Veltman (2009) discusses the habitual, but sustainable, import of butterflies for the increasingly popular walk-through butterfly exhibit and details the conservation benefits that can be accrued by such sustainable trade. Throughout their history, zoos have also been noted collectors and exhibitors of botanical wonders. While the sustainable acquisition and maintenance of animals in zoos now has significant attention, the sustainable, and ethical, acquisition of plants, unsurprisingly, has lagged behind. Frediani (2009) discusses the issues surrounding this subject and the management strategies that can be used.

The way in which zoos and aquariums manage the health of animals may be affected by changes in climate and Barbosa (2009) discusses the possibility of ‘emergent infectious diseases’ becoming more prevalent where climate change leads to more favourable conditions for spread. Changing temperatures and climatic conditions may also lead to greater stress in some species, increasing their susceptibility to infection.

Zoos and aquariums can demonstrate leadership when it comes to organizational sustainability, and demonstrating best practice should be seen as part of their educational raison d'être. Zoos and aquariums use significant amounts of energy to power their exhibits, facing particular challenges to maintain wild animals in appropriate environmental conditions. Those animals also produce large amounts of waste, as do the many millions of visitors to these visitor attractions. Any business requires ‘positive social capital’ to function and a chief executive who spends a significant proportion of their time defending their business is not paying full attention to that business. The business of the modern zoo is the conservation of biodiversity and, therefore, running a business sustainably and thereafter enjoying a positive social relationship with visitors and local communities aids the implementation of conservation initiatives.

To help improve the management of resources on their physical sites, including waste, water, energy and so on, zoos and aquariums can implement an Environmental Management System, the most widespread of which is ISO14001. A number of institutions have now achieved this standard, including Paignton Zoo, and Turner (2009) describes the implementation of such a system. Townsend (2009) also discusses incorporating sustainable practices explicitly using the ‘triple bottom line’ approach discussed earlier. It is of course much easier to build sustainable technologies into new developments or entirely new zoos, and Landman & Visscher (2009) discuss the planning of the sustainable zoo. The zoo restaurant and shop are also under scrutiny and zoos should ensure that the products sold in both have high ethical and sustainable credentials, as discussed by Koldewey et al. (2009) and Swannie Sigsgaard (2009).

There are some aspects of sustainability that are controversial in and of themselves, including the production of energy from sustainable sources. Wind farms have been accused of causing unacceptably high numbers of bird deaths through birds striking the rotating blades, although serious impact of this has been refuted by organizations such as The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds ( Biofuels, hailed as an alternative to more traditional fossil fuels, have been implicated in the loss of rich biodiversity areas. In some areas, primary and secondary forest is being logged to make way for monoculture plantations of biofuels, with oil palm being the most well known of these products. There is additional growing concern that vital food production areas are being turned over to biofuel plantations, leading to a ‘food vs fuel debate’. Increasing costs of oil, as well as the push to find alternatives to the finite supply of traditional fuels, have led to agricultural land being converted from human consumption crops.

In the UN, Decade of Education for Sustainable Development (2005–2014: see zoos and aquariums also have an exceptional opportunity to discuss sustainability with their visitors and to encourage more sustainable behaviours when visitors leave the zoo (Fraser & Sickler, 2009). It has been suggested that governments are finding it difficult to reach all social classes when it comes to sustainability messaging. Zoos, with their broad and even social make-up, can help bridge some of that gap, and deliver these messages in an enjoyable way and in the context of biodiversity conservation, which may prove to be an important connection in changing behaviours. Through consortiums such as the Madagascar Fauna Group, developed-world zoos can also assist in delivering sustainable education, in particular with regard to agricultural practices, in developing world countries (Freeman, 2009). Where unsustainable practices immediately impact on biodiversity, it makes sense to provide alternative practices and incentives.

Everything we eat, drink and produce is ultimately derived from biodiversity and, therefore, world economies are dependent on an intact, functioning biodiversity to be healthy. At the time of writing (November 2008), we have seen the world's governments take unprecedented actions to shore up banks and stabilize economies. If only they would work globally to do the same for biodiversity through promoting sustainable practices and supporting, both in skills and financially, those organizations, such as zoos and aquariums, that exhibit good practice, then the goals of Kyoto, the CBD and other multi-national agreements would likely be reached successfully. Zoos and aquariums cannot act on their own when it comes to good sustainable practice but they do have a role to play environmentally, socially and economically. This volume of the International Zoo Yearbook provides examples of such practice and hopefully will function as a useful tool for all zoos aiming to improve their sustainable credentials.