The fight against animal extinction
Zoo says it has a role, but not everybody agrees
A world without giraffes is one Menita Prasad doesn’t want to contemplate.
But with a recent study showing the world’s giraffes are at increasing risk of extinction, conservation is top of mind for the animal care manager at the Greater Vancouver Zoo.
Pompadour, the Aldergrove facility’s 10-year-old Rothschild’s giraffe, is not the only member of a dwindling species. A few weeks after scientists sounded the alarm concerning the world’s tallest land animal, another study raised fears about the cheetah, reporting only 7,100 of the speedy cats left in the wild. The Greater Vancouver Zoo is home to two cheetahs, Duma and Malkia.
“We want to do as much as we can to help,” said Prasad. “This news emphasizes that.”
But in rainy British Columbia, an ocean away from the African savannah, that amounts to education and donations to groups working on the ground. For various reasons, the zoo’s giraffe and cheetahs are not part of their breeding programs, nor are they candidates for rearing and release.
“Just because we have an animal in captivity doesn’t mean they need to be bred,” said Prasad.
Various factors determine if an animal is a candidate for what the zoo manager called the “glorified dating service” that is the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ species survival plan. Through coordinated breeding loans between facilities, the program strives to maintain pure blood lines, in addition to ensuring there are adequate homes for captive offspring. Pompadour, Duma and Malkia are not in consideration for breeding at this time, said Prasad.
“Our focus is on local animals,” she explained, pointing to the zoo’s work in rearing and releasing Oregon Spotted Frogs and Western Painted Turtles.
But Prasad emphasized the zoo’s role in educating the public about endangered species around the world, creating a “connection” between an animal in a faraway place and a person in their everyday life. Twenty-five cents from every zoo admission goes to conservation projects, including the Iranian Cheetah Project, which works to protect the small cheetah population in Iran.
“Our main objective is to inspire a connection with the animals which can then lead people to understand and support conservation efforts,” said Prasad.
But the executive director of the Vancouver Humane Society questioned whether a zoo can truly fulfil that goal.
“What they’re really doing is teaching people that it’s OK for animals to be in cages, that they exist for our entertainment,” said Debra Probert, calling the zoo’s education programs “inadequate.”
“Keeping endangered species does nothing for conservation,” she continued, questioning the idea that zoos can help stave off extinction by reintroducing giraffes and cheetahs to the wild.
The Greater Vancouver Zoo harbours no illusions about reintroducing (or, more accurately, introducing) Pompadour to the wild, said Prasad. “Pompy,” as he is affectionately known, was born in captivity at a facility on the east coast. Like many North American zoo animals, he has never been to Africa. He arrived in Aldergrove in 2012, around the same time the zoo was dealing with the deaths of three giraffes, including a baby that was born at the facility.
The cheetahs, Duma and Malkia, were also born in captivity. Duma was born at a facility in Africa that rehabilitates and releases animals back into the wild. He was hand reared and had imprinted on humans, making him ineligible for release.
Now the cheetah is one of the zoo’s star attractions. A bit of a “ham,” he loves attention an d crowds. He also seems to like the rain and chooses to be outside in the winter. Pompy, on the other hand, prefers the warmth of his enclosure in cool weather and is not allowed in his yard when there is ice on the ground. “They are such amazing creatures. Caring for them, you gain an appreciation of that,” said Prasad. In early December, scientists moved giraffes from being a “species of least concern” to “vulnerable” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) official watch list of the world’s threatened and endangered species. In 1985, there were between 151,000 and 163,000 giraffes, but the number dropped to 97,562 in 2015. Experts blamed habitat loss for the population decline, compounded by poaching, as more people move into giraffe territory in central and eastern Africa. A study released after Christmas sounded an even more dire warning about cheetahs, with the authors urging the IUCN to re-categorize the fastest land animal from “vulnerable” to “endangered.” The report estimated there are only 7,100 cheetahs left in the wild, with about 77 per cent of their habitat falling outside protected areas that are now being threatened by human encroachment.