THE BLOG

This Earth Day, Let's Celebrate the Role of Zoos and Aquariums in Conservation

04/22/2015 11:28 am ET | Updated Jun 22, 2015

Earth Day is a moment to reflect upon global efforts to protect our planet and its species from a variety of threats. For many of us, this work is taking place right in our own communities -- at the zoos, aquariums, and botanical gardens that are a part of many of our lives.

When we celebrate those who contribute to conservation, many times zoological parks are not a part of that discussion. In fact, these parks contribute to that effort robustly in land and seascapes across the globe through in-park conservation education, scientific field work, and breeding of species endangered in the wild.

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Ten juvenile Cuban crocodiles from Sweden's Skansen Aquarium will help sustain a population reduced to a mere 3,000 animals in the wild (only 10 percent of which are breeding females) due to illegal poaching, habitat loss, and hybridization with American crocodiles. (Photo by Natalia Rossi, ©WCS)

On Monday, April 20, 10 Cuban crocodiles (Crocodylus rhombifer) were sent to Cuba by Sweden's Skansen Aquarium. The crocs have a storied past that began with a Cold War gift of two Cuban crocs -- a male and a female -- from Fidel Castro to Soviet cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov. The cosmonaut donated the animals to the Swedish aquarium, where they became part of a beloved exhibit and later a breeding program for this critically endangered species.

The crocodiles were sent by the Skansen Aquarium to contribute additional genetic diversity to Cuba's endemic Cuban crocodile population -- reduced to a mere 3,000 animals in the wild (only 10 percent of which are breeding females) due to illegal poaching, habitat loss, and hybridization with American crocodiles (Crocodylus acutus) on the island.

This effort reflects a much broader range of conservation actions originating in zoos and aquariums around the globe. The Lincoln Park Zoo's Center for the Study and Conservation of Apes is monitoring chimps in the Congo's Goualougo Triangle. Through its Conservation Fund, Zoo Boise is building a replica of the Gorongosa National Park to highlight the fantastic biodiversity of that protected area in central Mozambique.

California's San Diego Zoo has played a leading role in the recovery of wild California condors. Elsewhere in the state, the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Sea Otter Program has been studying the threatened southern sea otter since 1984 with the aim of understanding threats to the population and promoting its recovery.

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Projects based at WCS's Bronx Zoo have led in recent years to reintroductions of a variety of threatened species to the wild, including bog turtles and hellbenders (above), a large river-dwelling salamander species. (Photo by Julie Larsen Maher, ©WCS)

Projects based at WCS's Bronx Zoo have led in recent years to reintroductions of a variety of threatened species to the wild -- from bog turtles and hellbenders (a large river-dwelling salamander species) to Puerto Rican crested toads and Kihansi spray toads -- the latter previously extinct in its native habitat in Tanzania's Kihansi Gorge.

Through our nearly 12 decades, our zoos and aquariums have contributed millions of dollars in support of field conservation, including $12 million raised at the Bronx Zoo Congo Gorilla Forest exhibit that has gone directly to supporting field programs in Africa. In addition, we estimate that 400 million people have visited our zoos and aquarium; for many of them, it will be the only time they have an opportunity to connect with wildlife.

Indeed, as I write on Earth Day, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) institutions are managing more than 3,000 conservation projects distributed across 127 countries. Every one of them is starting to make a difference. Some 124 AZA members have become partners on WCS's 96 Elephants campaign to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand for elephant ivory.

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Some 124 AZA members have become partners in WCS's 96 Elephants campaign to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand for elephant ivory. (Photo by Julie Larsen Maher, ©WCS)

Together, the zoo community is investing $160 million a year in field conservation. That makes the AZA one of the largest supporters of field conservation on the planet. With 185 million visitors worldwide, AZA institutions -- including all of the above-mentioned organizations -- are in a unique position to connect people to field conservation around the globe.

Earth Day is a perfect time to visit your local zoo or aquarium. Many of the iconic species attracting the largest crowds, from tigers and elephants to gorillas and tortoises (and many of those that are lesser-known), may be struggling to maintain their existence in the wild. But it is a fair guess that the dedicated staff at your local park is working at home and in the field to protect these and other species that desperately need our support.

Cristián Samper is President and CEO of WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society). Follow Cristián on Twitter @CristianSamper.