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.