Zoos claim captive creatures are part of vital conservation work, insisting several species depend on them for their survival. Mary Griffin visits Twycross Zoo to weigh up captivity versus conservation.
The Amur leopard is being playful.
He pads forward, eyeballing a little girl and it takes her breath away.
“Wow” she gasps.
Only a few inches and a panel of glass separate the cat and the child as her five-year-old brother announces: “He’s looking for a girlfriend.”
He’s right. The cat is Davidoff. He is also five and he’s one of only 16 Amur leopards in the UK – and one of only 169 in captivity across the world. They are the most northerly leopards in the world, giving them a set of unique characteristics, including their long pale fur.
In the wild, just 45 of these cats survive, roaming the wilderness of far east Russia where they’ve been hit hard by poaching (of both the cats and their prey), logging and forest fires.
These critically endangered leopards were featured in a top ten list of species published recently, as the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) highlighted their conservation work by pinpointing those animals whose future is most reliant on zoos.
At Twycross, they hope to help the dwindling Amur leopard population by finding a mate for Davidoff, hoping that his cubs’ cubs could one day be released into the wild from a purpose-built centre on the edge of the Russian habitat.
But re-introducing captive animals to the wild is a long, laborious and very costly process, says Neil Dorman, living collection curator at Twycross.
“Ten or 20 years ago, a zoo’s reason for being was to breed animals for re-introduction to the wild,” says Neil.
“That has changed lately.
“The reason now is to maintain viable populations so that we have these viable populations to re-populate areas of the world if we need to.”
Neil reckons the reputation of modern zoos suffers because of their arguably gloomy past.
He says: “Before the 1970s, zoos worked in isolation. It was like a competition over who had the best animal collections and who had the most of what.
“In the ‘70s, they started to realise that for managing genetic purity and saving the species for the future a better concept was co-operative breeding programmes.”
So Twycross now works with around 70 other European zoos, sharing stud books and breeding plans. But while the arduous procedure of releasing animals into the wild is rare, Neil is keen to stress the zoo’s ongoing work to protect and restore habitats for animals that are already roaming free.
He says: “A lot of the projects we support are not necessarily about animals we keep in the zoo.
“There are animals we work with which we don’t keep at Twycross and never will.
“But just because we don’t keep them doesn’t mean we don’t support them.”
They support the Cao Vit gibbon in north Vietnam, and fund education programmes for Bonobos in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and for orangutans in Borneo.
But not everyone supports the idea of keeping animals in captivity to support their counterparts in the wild.
Liz Tyson, director of the Captive Animals’ Protection Society, wants to see all zoos gradually wound down.
She says: “We would argue that from a welfare perspective you can’t meet the needs of an animal in captivity, no matter where it’s born.
“For wild animals, the instincts don’t die. Whether they’ve been born in captivity or in the wild, they remain wild animals.”
In 2003, new European legislation required zoos to make some contribution to conservation.
But some don’t believe it’s enough. And Liz doesn’t even believe it works.
She says: “While some zoos may make some contribution to projects in the wild, they are incredibly expensive middle men.
“It’s a really inefficient way of doing conservation. And I’m not sure people visiting zoos are that interested in conservation per se.
“The two organisations that give more money than anyone else to conservation are the World Wildlife Fund and Nature Conservancy – two non-governmental organisations that are run as not-for-profit.
“That model is working and zoos fall in behind it.”
But Kevin Caley, research and conservation executive at Twycross, isn’t convinced that relying on public donations for conservation without offering an opportunity to meet the animals is a realistic prospect.
He says: “People need contact with animals. They want to relate.
“You can ask, what’s the difference between looking at a gorilla through a glass window in a zoo and looking at it through the glass window of a television screen?
“Effectively it’s a gorilla behind a piece of glass either way you look at it.
“But in the zoo you can smell that animal. You are looking at and reacting to the gorilla and the gorilla is looking at and reacting to you.
“That’s what makes people want to help.”
Just 25pc of animals in zoos are at risk – report
The Born Free Foundation claims its 2007 investigation showed that some zoos’ conservation claims are on rocky ground.
It found that in the Consortium of Charitable Zoos, the public believed at least 41 per cent of species kept were threatened in the wild, stating the actual figure was less than 25 per cent.
It also claimed that 60 per cent of species kept by these zoos fell into the “Least Concern” category of extinction risk and that nearly 70 per cent of the public believed zoos spent more on conservation in the wild than they actually did, with the Consortium of Charitable Zoos spending around four to seven per cent of gross income on conservation in natural habitats and the public estimating the spend would be four times greater.
At the same time the report was published, London Zoo opened a new £5.3 million island complex for its two gorillas, prompting critics to ask whether the money could be better spent on conservation projects in the wild.
Zoos argue consevation and captivity aren’t mutually exclusive but work hand-in-hand.
The species most reliant on zoos for survival
One of the world’s largest frogs and Britain’s only native crayfish are among the creatures staving off extinction with the help of zoos, it was suggested today.
A list of species whose future is most reliant on conservation programmes by zoos in the UK and Ireland has been drawn up by the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) to highlight their work to save wildlife.
The top ten list includes the Amur leopard, Polynesian tree snails, the Potosi pupfish from Mexico and the Scimitar-horned oryx from Tunisia, Morocco and Senegal, which are all extinct in the wild.
The critically endangered mountain chicken frog, facing extinction in its Caribbean home from exploitation by humans, habitat loss and a deadly fungus, is being bred in captivity in the UK.
And around 95 per cent of Britain’s white-clawed crayfish have vanished from the country as a result of the introduction of American signal crayfish and disease, prompting UK zoos to breed the species for release in safe areas in the wild and raise public awareness of their plight.
The top ten list also includes ploughshare tortoises and the blue-eyed black lemur, both from Madagascar.
Zoos are also helping the blue-crowned laughingthrush, whose population numbers less than 250 mature birds in the wild in China, and even a tree, the Verdcourt’s polyalthia, which is found in just three places in the Kilombero valley, Tanzania.
Dr Andrew Marshall, of BIAZA’s field programmes committee, who co-ordinated the compilation of the list, said: “This list highlights ten prevailing examples of how zoos are working to save these and many other species from extinction.
“Without the valuable conservation and breeding work of many of our member zoos and aquariums, many ‘at risk’ species such as these may be lost to extinction forever.”
The top ten were chosen from hundreds of zoo-backed conservation programmes, focusing on species at high risk of extinction or extinct in the wild, schemes which involved initiatives in the field, zoos which had a management role, and projects which included habitat protection and working with local communities.
TV snake charmer in ‘lucky escape’
TV snake expert Mark O’Shea has survived a bite from a deadly king cobra at a Midland tourist attraction.
Mark, reptile specialist at West Midland Safari Park, Bewdley, was bitten on the leg and airlifted to Worcestershire Royal Hospital as a precaution.
He was later discharged.
He said: “I won’t lie, it did hurt.
“It was just a nick really. It was a lucky escape.
“Their venom is powerful but I’m absolutely fine, there’s nothing wrong with me.
Mark, aged 56, from Telford, praised colleagues.
“They were fantastic,” he said. “If you work with dangerous animals you have to understand it comes with a risk.”
He was feeding a 10ft long cobra called Sleeping Beauty when he was bitten.
Staff immoblised his leg to stop the poison from circulating and prepared an anti-venom jab.
Mark stars in Discovery Channel’s O’Shea’s Big Adventure and O’She’as Dangerous Reptiles on Channel 4.
In 1993, he nearly died after being bit by a rattlesnake.
A bite from a king cobra can kill a victim within 30 minutes, depending on the severity and size of the bite. It is the biggest of all venomous snakes and one of the most dangerous.
Zoo director Bob Lawrence said although king cobras were one of the most venomous snakes, it had only been “a minor nip”.
He added: “It is very, very rare that these things ever happen. Working with animals like this always carries hazards with it, but we have safety measures in place.”