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ABSTRACT

Modern zoos are committed to environmental education and thus have a mandate to inform the public about biodiversity and conservation. Historically, zoos have avoided complex topics like biodiversity loss from overpopulation and overconsumption in their educational materials, for fear of being offensive or creating a sense of hopelessness. To measure visitor attitudes towards educating about such topics and to help determine effective presentation techniques, we assessed people's knowledge of and attitudes towards the commercial hunting and consumption of wildlife in West and Central Africa (the bushmeat crisis) and examined how the use of different types of images affected these variables. Zoo visitors were exposed to one of six series of photographs, each accompanied by the same text. Photos in three of the series contained explicit, disturbing images of dead animals. The other three series presented benign images related to the bushmeat crisis (i.e., logging, changes in hunting practices). While 83 percnt of visitors had never heard of the bushmeat trade, 98 percent felt zoos should be educating about the topic. Ninety-seven percent felt the disturbing images were appropriate for zoo visitors except for children under the age of 12. While people spent significantly more time looking at the disturbing images, this did not lead to increases in knowledge (factual or conservation-related) on the topic. However, visitors who saw the disturbing images were significantly more likely to report being influenced by the images. While the type of image did not affect the frequency of conservation-related behaviors, significantly more people engaged in a conservation-related behavior when an opportunity was provided on-site rather than off-site. The results demonstrate that the public believes zoos should educate about bushmeat, and that realistic images influence people's perception of an issue. However, visitors' lack of knowledge gains, even when disturbing images are used, suggests that a static display of text with photographs may not be the most effective method for educating about complex issues like bushmeat. Finally, the results show that zoos should provide on-site opportunities for people to turn their conservation interests into action.