From a Cursed Island to a Paradise: Gorgona Island National Natural Park

In the early to mid last century, prison islands were all the rage. One of the most famous was Alcatraz, in San Francisco (United States) of which many books and movies were written, such as the famous Escape from Alcatraz with Clint Eastwood. There were many in the Atlantic, but all of them were inhabited. In Colombia, the uninhabited Gorgona Island, in the Pacific, was the perfect place to create a prison where more than 4,000 prisoners served their sentences.

Around the decade of the 80’s, 70% of the Gorgona island was deforested, as 10 tons of firewood were used weekly to cook for more than a thousand people. Fortunately, the ecological wave that rising everywhere, saved this unique and magical place from being completely wiped out.

Today it is known as the Gorgona National Natural Park, a spectacular place to visit, which, according to biologist Mateo Lopez, it serves as a barrier against climate change. It rains so much that the water production is immense, forming 75 streams in winter. Besides this, in Gorgona there are unique species such as the spectacular blue anole (Anolis gorgonae). This is a small Galapagos, but in Colombia!

Discovering Gorgona National Natural Park

Gorgona National Natural Park, made up of three islets,  is on the Pacific Ocean in the western part Colombia, between the island of Malpelo and the port of Buenaventura. This small paradise has an extension of about 26 km² of land  and 616.88 km² of marine area.

Gorgona has one of the most beautiful and complex ecosystems on the planet. It is possible to appreciate a tropical rainforest, beautiful coral formations and Indo-Pacific coral reefs. During the months of June and October it is possible to appreciate the migration of humpback whales, which come to this point to give birth to their calves, named ballenatos in Spanish.

A little bit of Gorgona’s History

The Sindagua native (precolonial aborigins) inhabited Gorgona around 1500 a.c. By 1526 the island was discovered by the Spanish conqueror Francisco Pizarro who gave the island its modern name “Gorgona” thanks to the large number of snakes on the island, recalling the Greek mythology, where the gorgons instead of wearing hair carried snakes.

In 1959 the president of Colombia Alberto Lleras Camargo ordered the construction of a maximum-security prison, which opened in 1960. The main house of the Payan family, who lived on the island, was modified to be the prison administration.

In 1984 President Belisario Betancur closed the prison and authorized the house to be turned into a museum. The island was then declared a protected area designated for scientific research.  Entry since then was restricted, but nowadays is open for ecotourism.

Pirates in Gorgona Island

It is estimated that in the centuries XVII and XVIII Gorgona was the refuge of pirates, because it was considered a privileged point to set full sail to attack the galleons returning to Europe from the colonies with large amounts of gold. After the attacks they sailed up the seas to Panama.

La Virgen, old prison reminders in Gorgona, Colombia CC Licence

Gorgona Prison Escape Stories

Daniel Camargo Barbosa, known as the “Monster of the Mangones” was sentenced to 16 years in prison for the kidnapping, rape and murder of a nine years old girl in Barranquilla. After his capture it was learned that in his home he had a record (photographs and underwear) of 170 girls and women from Colombia and Ecuador whom he raped and murdered.

On November 23, 1984 it was confirmed that “Camargo”, as he was known, did not return to the patio number 2 where he was confined and no more information was obtained from him after the weekly bath that the prisoners had on the beach.

3 days later they found a boat destroyed at the shore and thought that sharks had killed the Camargo.  An order  to suspend the “search mission” was issued and the version that the “fugitive had died in his escape attempt” was officially released.

The prison had so far 21 records of escape attempts but none of these men were found alive. The traces of the bodies were found in the remains of the boats in the middle of the ocean.

The only escape that was confirmed much later was that of Pedro Ariza and his nephew Alberto Lopez,  together with their dog Jacqueline. They all managed to survive because they were rescued by a crew of tourists who took them to the port of Buenaventura.

Gorgona Island as a Protected Area

Gorgona Island currently belongs administratively to the municipality of Guapi, Cauca. The protected area consists of the islands Gorgona and Gorgonita, and the islets El Viudo and El horno.

The island is the largest in the world in terms of freshwater production, with 25 freshwater streams and 120 transient streams. The island also has 2 lagoons Tunapurí and Ayantuna, located on the southeastern side of the island, and are home to babillas (small size alligator type reptiles).

The highest point of the island is La Trinidad with a height of 338 meters above sea level. There are additionally  3 other small hills of lower altitude: Los Micos, La Esperanza and El Mirador.

Blue anole – Anolis gorgonae by Diego Gomez

Importance for Conservation and Local Communities

Gorgona Island is an important coastal marine conservation enclave in the Colombian Pacific. Due to its environmental characteristics, the biological diversity on Gorgona Island is considerable. As of 2004, 715 plant species and 1398 animal species had been reported, without considering terrestrial invertebrates and zooplankton species (UAESPNN, 2004). Among these, six endemic species stand out:

  • Nhotria gorgonensis (marine worm),
  • Maldane gorgonensis (marine worm),
  • Hypobolosera gorgonensis (lung crab),
  • Dyrmaeus gorgoniensis (land snail),
  • Parides gorgoniensis (butterfly),
  • Anolis gorgononae (blue anole),

And six endemic subspecies:

  • Thamnophilus punctatus gorgonae (Black-crowned Antshrike),
  • Coereba flaveola gorgonae (bananaquit),
  • Cyanerpes cyaneus gigas (Red-legged honeycreeper),
  • Cebus capucinus curtus (Colombian white-faced capuchin),
  • Bradypus variegatus gorgonae (Brown-throated sloth), and
  • Proechimys semispinosus gorgonae (Tome’s spiny rat).

Additionally, of the total number of flora and fauna species that have been reported for Gorgona Island, at least six plant species and 40 animal species are classified with some degree of threat according to the IUCN categories.

In addition to the high diversity of species and ecosystems, Gorgona Island fulfills a strategic function for the coastal human communities near its area of influence, since it was traditionally used as an artisanal fishing area.

How to get to Gorgona National Natural Park


Take a 45- minutes flight from Bogotá to Palmira city. Once at the airport, take an approximately 3- hours ride to Buenaventura. Once at Buenaventura port  you should take an extra 12-hour boat ride to Gorgona.


Take a 45- minutes flight from Bogotá to Palmira city. Once at the airport, take a flight to Guapi with Satena airline. Finally, from Guapi you should take an extra 1,5-hour boat ride to Gorgona.

What to do in Gorgona National Natural Park

Diving and snorkeling

Gorgona Island is a wonderful place for diving and snorkeling thanks to the great variety of marine fauna and flora species, including whitetip sharks, turtles of different species, groupers, octopus, large schools of snappers, jacks, among others, along with the beautiful and colorful coral reefs found on the island.

The park has 12 authorized dive sites with a maximum depth of 40 meters; the most recognized are: El planchón; La tiburonera; El remanso; La parguera; La plaza de toros; El horno and Las montañitas.

These areas have the optimal conditions for a unique experience. Bear in mind that in order to dive in this waters you need to have certified experience.

Hiking and Trekking

Hiking is the most exciting activity in Gorgona National Natural Park. You can hike along 4 trails: Antiguo Penal, Playa Palmeras, Yundigua y Higueron. This activity allows you to admire majestic landscapes among a paradisiacal tropical jungle while admiring the place that was once a prison.

Gorgona & Gorgonilla by Hector Chirimia Gonzalez


In Gorgona the most representative birds are the frigate bird, the pelican and the sulas. Other species of birds from Malpelo island that can be seen during the traveler’s stay are: the Red-billed tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus) nesting in Malpelo, Galapagos and California; the Pomarine and Long-tailed jaegers (Stercorarius pomarinus and S. longicaudus); the Audubon’s Shearwater (Puffinus iherninieri), the sooty shearwater (P. griseus), and the black storm petrel (Oceanodroma melania).

Wildlife Observation

The coral formations of the island are divided into sectors: La Ventana is the one with the largest coral extension (73.2%), followed by Playa Blanca (66.4%) and finally La Camaronera and La Azufrada (44.15%). Corals present in Gorgona belong to 18 different species of a group of 6 reef families.

The park has a record of 381 species of marine fish, 11 species of whales and dolphins, and 4 sea lions. In the second half of the year it is possible to see humpback whales, despite the possible rains.

Where to stay in Gorgona National Natural Park

Gorgona natural national park offers simple accommodation for travelers. In addition, the island has the beautiful Hotel Parque Nacional Gorgona, where you can enjoy wonderful facilities and an afternoon swim at a pool.

Best time to visit Gorgona National Natural Park

The climate on Gorgona Island is tropical maritime super-humid. Air temperature is generally above 26°C while relative humidity reaches 90% saturation. Average monthly precipitation ranges between 180 mm to 400 mm during the “dry” season (January-March) and between 550 mm to 750 mm during the “rainy” season (April-December).

Gorgona Island can be visited all year round, there is no dry season but the months with less rainfall are February and March. 

Gorgona National Natural Park Entrance fees

The entrance fee varies depending on the nationality and age of the visitors. These are the entrance fees for 2021:

  • Colombians, resident foreigners and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (ages 5 to 25): COP 13,500 (approx.USD 4)
  • Colombians, resident foreigners and tourists from Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru (over 25 years old): COP 22,000 (approx.USD 7)
  • Non-resident foreigners (over 5 years old): COP 53,000 (approx.USD 17)
  • Children under 5 years old and Colombians over 65 years old have free entrance presenting their IDs.

What to consider before visiting Gorgona National Natural Park

  • To take any of the tours inside the sanctuary you must hire an authorized and certified guide.
  • Gorgona is one of the mating, breeding and feeding sites of the humpback whale. For this reason observing whales must be done under supervision of authorized guides;
  • Consider wearing personal protective items (sun blocker, sunglasses, towel, insect repellent, and hat).
  • The use of flash when taking photographs is prohibited.
  • Recommended the use of binoculars to admire animals’ behavior and beauty in their natural habitat.
  • Carry valid identity documents and health insurance. It is recommended to be vaccinated against yellow fever and tetanus.
  • If you take specific medications, take them with you a personal first aid kit.

Some prohibitions

Feeding, bothering or hunting animals, alcoholic drinks and drugs, throwing cigarette butts, burning garbage, felling, and capturing wildlife.

About the authors

Luisa Martin

Engineer, world traveler, amateur photographer, traveling blogger, and foody.

Sara Colmenares

The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism–environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.

Community-based Ecotourism in Colombia: A Bet for Local Development

Have you heard about community-based ecotourism? If not, here we will tell you about it. Community-based ecotourism aims at harmony between nature conservation and people, where ecotourism activities provide greater benefits to local communities.

For more than 10 years community-based ecotourism in Colombia exists, being promoted by the Colombian government and organizations such as the Ministry of Commerce, Industry and Tourism, National Parks of Colombia, USAID, and AUDUBON.

This whole process of tourism development hand in hand with local communities involves training, organizational strengthening, promotion, and marketing of destinations.

Over time, difficulties, lessons learned, and developing a process that involves a community-based private organization and public institutions have been revealed and overcome.

Visiting Usiacurí and Luriza Reserve

The Importance of Community-based Ecotourism

These are the great advantages of community-based tourism:

  1. Tourism generates opportunities outside the big cities,
  2. Helps preservation of the cultural and natural heritage of rural communities, indigenous peoples, and many other historically marginalized populations around the world.
  3. For many rural communities around the world, tourism is a major generator of employment and opportunity, especially for women and youth.
  4. In some places, ecotourism is one of the few viable economic and legal activities.
  5. Tourism also enables rural communities to celebrate their unique cultural heritage and traditions.
  6. Community-based ecotourismis a vital sector for safeguarding habitats and endangered species.
  7. Economic income goes directly to the native lodges, to the local transporter, to the people who carry out daily activities, such as traditional cooking workshops, or traditional fishing activities, etc.
  8. Communities are transformed by learning to do responsible, differentiated, and environmentally friendly tourism, and they are more and more convinced every day of having beautiful territories.
  9. From your side, you are contributing to cultural or wildlife conservation programs, such as sea turtles, whales, birds, or pink dolphins.
Community-based tourism Usiacurí, Atlantico, Colombia

The High Impact of the Pandemic

2020 has been a very hard year for this type of tourism. Many families dedicated to this business were ruined. Some communities are able to survive because they can return to their old trades such as agriculture and fishing.

However, many of them are eagerly awaiting the opportunity to reopen their doors to travelers. It depends not only on them but also on new challenges such as the implementation of biosecurity protocols on their part.

Communities within the Protected Areas of Colombia

In Colombia, many of the protected areas have communities within them or in their areas of influence, i.e., border zones. For example, Afro-descendant communities in Utria national park in the Pacific, or the indigenous communities living in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta national park in the Caribbean.

Indigenous People from the Sierra Nevada, picture by Banco de la Republica

These local communities have become valuable allies for the conservation of natural values in parks, reserves, and sanctuaries.

At the same time, the communities represent cultural values that in many cases are also object of conservation in the protected areas.

Who is involved, and what they do?

Entire families and young people establish community associations and are trained to provide eco-tourism services with the support of the Colombian National Parks System, or by foundations such as USAID or AUDUBON Society.

Thus, some learn about the natural values of the protected area to provide environmental interpreter services, others specialize as ecotourism guides, some improve their knowledge of typical gastronomy, and others explore handicraft production techniques.

Picture from Audubon: “Wayuu indigenous students and teacher Alvaro Jaramillo are bird watching in La Guajira, Colombia. The program teaches locals to become tour guides for travelers interested in spotting birds. Photo: Carlos Villalon”

Moreover, many of them are trained in the application of clean technologies that they will later use for the sustainable management of all ecotourism activities.

In recent years, the most successful processes have been the Colombian Birding Trails designed in the Caribbean and the Andean regions, where Audubon Society developed hand in hand with the local communities important birding trails around Colombia.

Ongoing projects are the Riqueza Natural Award, where local people, technology, and innovation were the main components to design new nature tourism offers in Colombia. Find out more about these destinations in our entry The Top Post-Covid-19 Destinations for Conservation Lovers in Colombia.

Community-based Ecotourism in Colombian National Parks

Today there are seven protected areas of the Colombian National Parks System that have the active participation of community organizations that offer their services to tourists. These areas have very diverse natural environments and a great variety of cultural manifestations:

  1. Iguaque Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, with the community organization Natural Iguaque, formed by farmers from the municipality of Arcabuco (Boyacá).
  2. Los Flamencos Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, with the El Santuario Association formed by residents of the village of Camarones (Guajira).
  3. Otún Quimbaya Fauna and Flora Sanctuary, with the Yarumo Blanco Association formed by a group of young people from the village of Floridablanca (Risaralda).
  4. Corales del Rosario and San Bernardo National Natural Park, with the community organization Nativos Activos, formed by inhabitants of the community of Orika (Isla Grande).
  5. Utría National Natural Park, with the Mano Cambiada Corporation, formed by inhabitants of the municipality of Nuquí (Chocó);
  6. Chingaza National Natural Park, Siecha sector, with the Asociación Ecoturistica Suasie, formed by young people from Vereda Trinidad (Cundinamarca).
  7. El Cocuy National Natural Park, with the Guías de Güican and Cocuy Association formed by farmers from the municipalities of Güican and Cocuy (Boyacá).

All of them offer several different services, such as multi-day packages to explore the region. You can book directly with them, or with our help. In general, the main objective is increasing sales of community products. In SULA, we help them, and you, making reservations more efficient.

La Guajira – Los Flamencos National Natural Park

Other Community-based Ecotourism Destinations in Colombia

Community-based tourism initiatives around Colombia, picture MinCIT, 2017

Of the many beautiful places that Colombia has, we recommend:

  1. Chocó, a unique place with indigenous and afro traditions, as well as a huge biodiversity richness. The Chocó municipalities of Nuquí, Bahía Solano, Capurganá, and Sapzurro are developing this kind of tourism.
  2. The islands of San Andres, Providencia, and Santa Catalina, with its Raizal community.
  3. In Valledupar with the communities of Pueblo Viejo, in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
  4. La Guajira with groups of Wayuu women, who develop their activities within their tourist ranches.
  5. Birding trails such as:
    1. Northern Colombia Birding Trail,
    2. the Central Andes Birding Trail, and
    3. the Southwestern Andes Birding Trail.
  6. Mitu, Vaupes, with their ethnic touristic proposal.
  7. San Jose del Guaviare, with Econare, a local association of community-based tourism in charge of preserving the Amazon pink dolphins.
Indigenous handicraft, Mitú, Vaupès

Of course, there are many more places! If you want to plan your trip to Colombia do not hesitate to contact us, visit our Plan your trip page!

  • MinCIT
  • Radio Nacional
About the author

Sara Colmenares

The current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism–environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services, and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.


Can Zoos be Considered as Fair Ecotourism Destinations?

Yes, I know, defending zoos or not is a thorny subject. And believe me, there is not a satisfactory conclusion for everybody. In the end it is up to you to make your choices. Here I will give some information to take into account.

The tourism industry uses animals in many different ways and scenarios: races and competitions, gastronomy, hunting, sportfishing, and watchers.

In general, people interested in wildlife have two options:

  1. Experience direct contact with wildlife in the field, in nature, by visiting natural reserves or parks, but not having any direct contact with it; or,
  2. Visiting zoos, aquaria, or botanical gardens, and enjoy encounters that give them an opportunity to interact directly with wild species, by having the opportunity to touch, hold, feed, and record them.

In addition, in wildlife tourism, there is a known strong relationship between the success of tourists in seeing animals and satisfaction. They always expect to receive realistic expectations about where and when they will be able to see most of the wildlife they want to see to avoid disappointment.

Why do Zoos Exist?

Human beings have always been captivated by the unknown, the rare, the exotic… and by vanity and pride also. Having a collection of wild animals or plants was a hobby for Kings and Monarchs since ancient times. And this is why and how zoos appeared in their origins.

They started as animal collections, called menageries (house of beasts), owned by wealthy people wanting to display their monetary power.

Equus grevyi in the Ménagerie (house of beasts) Jardin des Plantes Paris. Gift of Menelik II to France (Image from 1882) ©Henri Viallanes (1856-1893) Public Domain.

Later on, the Age of Enlightenment brought a new interest for everything, and intellectual and scientific knowledge became more relevant than power displays.

During this time nature expeditions began, and many menageries became into zoos, even though they were still very limited and uncomfortable for animals and plants. One of the most famous was the Jardine des Plantes in Paris.

Modern Zoos

With the rise of the scientific community and research, and so the growth of understanding about other living beings and ecosystems, menagerie – museums like zoos started to transition to what we know as a modern zoo.

A modern zoo is supposed to be meant principally to recreate and educate people, and put them in contact with wildlife while supporting scientific research, education and species conservation.

Sea lions relaxing at the Central Park Zoo in New York City ©CreativeCommons

Zoos are more than the city zoos we see in movies and television (watch Penguins of Madagascar show as an example). There are several other types of zoos, among them safari parks, game preserves, petting zoos, rural and roadside zoos, aquaria, animal theme parks and specialized collections.

There are also specialized zoos and gardens focused on recreate the natural habitats of specific animals and plants, where they live in semi-captivity conditions.

In Colombia, we have examples of these specialized zoos such as the Oceanarium in Cartagena, the botanical garden of Bogotá, Los Ocarros Park in Villavicencio, the Ukumari Park in Risaralda, just to mention a few of them.

Defending Zoos or Not

As mentioned before, for many of us, a zoo and a botanical garden is our first and perhaps only introduction to a living wild animal or plant species.

In some regions even common species can be difficult to see, not to mention rare ones that require conservation care. And it is in these cases that a zoo takes on a greater role in educating, researching and conserving wildlife.

However, there is a tiny gap between exploitation and education. Not everything is a bed of roses. There are many examples of cruel management in zoos, out of all logic, common sense and compassion.

For example, let’s remember the case of Marius, the giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo, who was euthanized in 2014, only because he could not reproduce, even though he was a healthy animal.

Sit-in protest against zoos and conservation of animal species under conditions of confinement and according to rules that involve practices such as euthanasia for reasons of conservation of the species. In the foreground a puppet giraffe, to represent the case of Marius ©CreativeCommons

In addition, there are several studies addressing the issue of “whether zoos are a morally acceptable form of ecotourism. The biggest criticisms of zoos have been the captivity of animals and the conditions of animal welfare. Thus, animal welfare and their removal from nature are persistent challenges for zoos.

Despite zoos have put more importance on conservation and compassionate animal treatment, and play an important role in protecting endangered species, animal rights defenders say it is cruel to keep animals in captivity. They argue that “living in captivity takes away wild animals’ natural behavior and instincts” (PETA-UK).

Is it a Zoo Defensible as an Ecotourism Setting or Attraction?

This question raises another even more complex question, that of why we, the species Homo sapiens sapiens, are using other species for our enjoyment? And even more so in contexts that harm the animals, such as fishing or hunting?

Perhaps zoos are not defensible as tourist attractions in moral terms. But ethics and good practice can defend them.

Bioparque La Reserva Foundation – Natural theme park and sanctuary of plants and animals rescued from illegal traffic

The relationship between ecotourism and zoos must be based on an understanding of what is an acceptable use of animals for ecotourism purposes and what is not. This is despite the fact that many zoo visitors do so for entertainment rather than education and conservation.

And here is the divide: while some people support conservation and endure enjoying wildlife at a distance, or through documentaries, the growing wildlife tourism industry shows that there are others with a strong interest in having close and personal experiences as well.

How can it be solved? Including as ecotourism interactions those zoos where the interests of animals are above the interests of humans, i.e. places that apply clear practices in accordance with international standards and animal ethics.

WAZA: World Association of Zoos and Aquariums

WAZA is a global alliance dedicated to the care and conservation of animals and their habitats around the world since 1935. It also guides and encourages zoos to maintain best practices according to international standards and animal ethics.

The WAZA has two types of membership: one of them is an association member that is through another regional or local zoo association such as the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) in America. The other one is a direct institutional membership of WAZA.

If you want to know more about WAZA and related associations, visit the WAZA website or the article World Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Wikipedia.

There is also a link that helps you to find the best zoos around the world on the AZA’s website.

Despite the existence of these alliances, less than a third part of the total zoos are recognized for maintaining best practices according to international standards.

Sustainable Zoos in Colombia

There are many reserves and natural parks where you can observe free animals and plants in their natural habitat. If you are interested in seeing wild animals up close I recommend you to read our entries Booking a Safari in Colombia? Find here the Best Options! and When and Where to Go to See Humpback Whales in Colombia

Related to zoos, in Colombia there are two organizations linked to WAZA which are the Colombian Association of Zoos, Aquariums and Related (ACOPAZOA) and the Fundación Zoológico de Cali.

Affliated to AZA there is only the Zoológico de Cali in Colombia.

Pink flamingo (Phoenicopterus roseus) at the Zoológico de Cali, Valle del Cauca, Colombia

Affiliated to ACOPAZOA you can find the following zoos, aquaria and foundations in Colombia which are committed to animal welfare, research and conservation in Colombia:

  1. Marine World Aquarium
  2. Rodadero Sea Aquarium and Museum
  3. Tití Project Foundation
  4. Barranquilla Zoo
  5. National Aviary of Colombia
  6. Rosario Islands Oceanarium
  7. Explora Park Aquarium
  8. Santa Fe Zoo
  9. Santa Cruz Zoo Foundation
  10. Piscilago Recreational Park and Zoo
  11. Guátika Zoo
  12. Cali Zoo
  13. Los Ocarros Biopark
Colombian Zoos Affiliated to ACOPAZOA which are committed to animal welfare, research and conservation in Colombia (Photo took from ACOPAZOA

How Wildlife Tourism and Zoos can Protect Animals and Habitats in the Wild?

Thousands of tourists and local people travel to several places around the world to see animals or plants semi-wild in a reserve, a zoo, a botanical garden or captive in a rehabilitation center.

Several academic studies on nature tourists’ choices showed that many of them travel to see specific species. For example, many people travel to Australia to know the kangaroos or the koalas, or travel to Malaysia to know the Orangutans, or travel to Colombia to watch the endemic Multicolored Tanager, or to Brazil for jaguars in the Pantanal.

Many tourists travel to Colombia to see the unique and special wax palm.

The studies also found that many tourists would be happy not to see these wildlife species, as long as they were preserved in their natural habitats.

Thus, the wildlife experience can be separated from the wildlife and that could benefit both tourists and animals still living in the wild (Garnett and Zander, 2014).

Extinct in the Wild but Alive in Captivity

It is also true that for many species, zoos became the only place where they have shelter and protection, and this is why, in my opinion, it is not correct to attack zoos, but to question the causes of the huge loss of natural habitats around the world.

The critically endangered cotton-top tamarin (Saguinus oedipus) at the Tití Project Foundation Reserve in Los Límites, Atlántico, Colombia

A well-known example of an animal that has been classified as extinct in the wild (category EW, IUCN) is the famous Spix’s Macaw, known from the film Rio. Centuries of deforestation, human settlement and agricultural development devastated their natural habitat. Today less than 100 individuals live in captivity in preservation centers, parks and private collections around the world.

Spix’s Macaw (Cyanopsitta spixii) – Museum fur Naturkunde, Berlin – ©CreativeCommons

The loss of habitat due to land use transformation for businesses and occupation, and the exaggerated increase of the human population with its corresponding, and badly planned, expansion, are the true executioners of wildlife.

Mass Extinction and the Anthropocene

We are witnessing a mass extinction of species, the sixth to be precise, since dinosaurs disappeared 65 million years ago, at the end of the Cretaceous period.

Now we live in the Anthropocene (10,000 BCE – 2020 CE), a time in which human activity has been the trigger for the extinction of other species on a large scale.

The western black rhinoceros (Diceros bicornis longipes) or West African black rhinoceros was a subspecies of the black rhinoceros, declared extinct by the IUCN in 2011. ©CreativeCommons

It is expected that up to half the world’s species will be gone by 2050. We need to care more about the choices we can make and what comes next, to avoid such devastation.

The Role of Zoos in Biodiversity Conservation

If tourists want to see wildlife in its natural habitat, they are likely to face a long and uncomfortable journey by bus, canoe, or on foot or by diving, in places such as dense jungles, deserts or the open sea – all for a very small chance of glimpsing a terrified animal or an unblooming plant.

So, the upside of visiting a place where wildlife still looks and behave as if they are wild, but without the long trip and discomfort, becomes a realistic and better option.

As for the true wildlife, they would happily never feel additional stress than the one caused by poachers, lumberjacks, bulldozers, among other horrible things.

Ostrich Park, Puerto López, Meta

Both, wild and semi-captive populations can benefit from each other. People get to see and be in touch with wildlife, without perturbing the real natural habitats. On the other hand, they will take the message for supporting conservation and research.

The Role of Zoos in Sustainable Tourism

Zoos are an important part of responsible wildlife tourism, not only for their contribution to conservation but to the local economies.

For example, in countries like Malaysia, tourists can contribute, on average US$16.5 million a year to the local economy, by paying for specialized nature trips to see orangutans.

Tourists also expect that their contributions go to help the remaining truly wild species in and around remote and natural areas in the region.

Community-based tourism in Atlántico, Colombia

Unfortunately, conservationists are finding that many threatened species do need to earn a dollar to justify their protection and existence.

Examples of it are orangutans, penguins, jaguars, which show that they can attract an appreciative public capable of paying not only with their admiration but with their money, which also helps to support the local people by increasing tourism.

Conclusion: To Visit Zoos or Not?

If you do not have the time or money for a trip to a remote place, or if you have never had a close experience with wildlife, a zoo or a botanical garden is a good option to start.

When visiting a zoo or a botanical garden, besides getting involved with exotic animals or plants, many of which are in threat of extinction in nature, you will also help research and conservation projects.

But remember! There is a link between the experience of visiting animals in captivity and their conservation in the wild, as well as their habitat. The zoo you choose to visit and the causes you support will make all the difference.


About the author

Sara Colmenares

Current director of Sula. Doctor in Biological Sciences. Her main interests are to explore and understand the organism – environment interactions, taking advantage of emerging knowledge for the management and conservation of species and ecosystem services. She is currently working as a consultant in functional ecology, ecosystem services and conservation projects in Colombia related to ecotourism and birdwatching.