Saturday, 15 February 2014

Doing what comes ‘naturally’

Reticulated giraffe - picture Steve Garvie
I was saddened to read about the killing of a healthy young giraffe in Copenhagen’s Zoo. The zoo’s scientific director tried to explain that the subsequent feeding of the animal’s meat to the lions was educational for the adults and children watching and showed something which was ‘natural’.

There was nothing ‘natural’ about this event.

In the wild the young giraffe would have had a chance to speed away, he might have had some protection from his herd. In the wild the lions would have had to use their hunting skills – maybe successfully maybe not – but they would not be bored creatures whose lives have to be enriched by toys and challenges.

There was perhaps some educational value in the explanation that the young male animal could - if not prevented – breed with another giraffe too close in its gene pool to produce healthy offspring. It has emerged that the culling of animals in zoos is widespread, the environment of zoos inevitably creates a restricted number of animals in too close a relationship for successful breeding.

But why allow breeding of animals in captivity?

Is the answer that Denmark is a member of the European zoo programme to breed endangered species?  Was this the reason why breeding of healthy young giraffes was so important in Copenhagen?  Unfortunately for Marius – and that was the name the zoo had given the young giraffe – was not a member of an endangered species. His particular species - the reticulated giraffe is not under threat in the wild.

Baby animal - from Free Wallpapers
Why do zoos therefore go to great lengths to breed young animals if this is not for conservation? 

 Is it because animals in zoos grow old and die and need replacing? 

That is part of the answer but a less comfortable truth is that we – the zoo’s visitors - like to see young animals.

They are often fluffy and cute and zoos can expect an influx of visitors to see a young creature soon after it is born. 

Zoos need income – and plenty of it - to care and provide for the animals they house.

They also need income to care and provide for the animals, fish, birds and insects which do not attract attention. In some cases the public may even find these creatures repellent or distasteful.

How many of us know that London Zoo ZFL is managing the breeding and conservation of a fish - the Corfu Toothcarp and a tiny frog – the Dominican mountain chicken? 

ZSL Vulture recovery programme

The dedicated staff are also working with the Vulture Recovery Programme, in partnership with the Bombay Natural History Society and the RSPB, in India. 

Three species are listed as critically endangered or rare as a result of the use of the drug diclofenac by vets on cows. 

Vultures do an important job in the wild, cleaning up rotting carrion and other waste.  

Who has heard of the highly-endangered Partulid tree snails of French Polynesia? 

These are all part of London Zoo’s endangered species programme. Many of these creatures have been driven towards extinction by the actions of other animals – a dominant mammal - our own species.  

There is nothing ‘natural’ about conservation – it is a great example of one species using its ingenuity and foresight to conserve and extend the life of other species.   

But if - as seems likely - Marius was once bred to attract visitors – the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision to make his death an unnecessary spectacle adds another dimension to the debate.

This pantomime does all zoos a disservice. 

Also read Virginia Morrell National Geographic