Zoo-ing better to improve conservation

What helps a zoo pull in the punters?
13 February 2020


An adult asian elephant and its calf


Armed with data from over 450 zoos, a formula for the right recipe that makes a zoo most attractive to visitors has been hatched by researchers in Ireland...

High visitor numbers matter because, as Trinity College Dublin's Andrew Mooney, who led the new study, has discovered, zoos with more visitors invest more in conservation projects. So what pulls people in?

“We found, as you might expect, that people go to zoos to see big, charismatic animals. We found that the number of animals, particularly mammals,  and the body mass of  the collection were really big predictors of visitor attendance,” says Mooney. “These big animals are playing a really big indirect conservation role by bringing loads of people into zoos.”

The researchers used data on global zoo inventory from the Species360 database, which they cross-referenced with data on local population size around the zoo and country gross domestic product (GDP) to get a picture of how different factors influenced attendance.  

Of course, not everyone has the space to look after a herd of elephants. “If you look at the  space required, it could be used to house hundreds, if not thousands of amphibians, or invertebrate species,” points out Mooney. “But, unfortunately, they don’t excite the public as much; so it is a trade-off.”

But the trade-off is more complex than merely elephants versus frogs. The researchers also found that zoos with unusual or unique exhibits faired better in terms of visitor numbers than their more mundanely-stocked counterparts. “Of course, not every zoo can be weird at the same time, or they all end up being the same!”

This finding certainly highlights that there is room to get creative, and there are already some weird and wonderful examples of zoos pushing the boundaries. “A good example of using really unique animals to excite visitors comes from Artis Zoo, in Amsterdam,” says Mooney. “They have a microbial zoo, where you can look at micro-organisms under a microscope, which has proved to be very popular.” 

Investing in conservation projects in the wild is not the only way zoos contribute to species conservation. For species that have gone extinct in the wild, captive zoo populations represent a second chance.

“The scimitar-horned oryx is only alive today because zoos have taken the effort to breed them,” explains Mooney. “It’s now being reintroduced to its natural habitat, because we had a viable population in a zoo.” 

Zoos also play an important educational role.  For many people, a trip to the zoo will be their only contact with the natural world. Hopefully in future, they’ll have a chance to encounter a much wider variety of species!


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