Zoos often claim that they provide an educational day out for the general public by offering an entertaining way to learn about animals and conservation. This argument is frequently used by those who support keeping animals in captivity for profit. However, unbiased research published in the academic journal Conservation Biology suggests that this claim is false and that children are not actually educated when visiting zoos.

Research conducted surveyed 2800 children after guided and unguided visits to the London Zoo.  This survey revealed that 62% of children showed no change in knowledge regarding new facts about animals or any pertaining to environmental conversation. 

Modern zoos and aquariums also aspire to contribute significantly to biodiversity conservation research.  This is a key criterion for accreditation by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. For instance, the Pretoria Zoo is a member of PAAZA, and PAAZA is a member of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  

On 16 November 2022, Professor Martinette Kruger and Adam Viljoen published a paper titled “Encouraging Pro-Conservation Intentions in Urban Recreational Spaces: A South African Zoo Perspective”.  The paper is supported by a field survey carried out at the Johannesburg Zoo in 2019 and 445 completed questionnaires. The paper argues that zoos have an important role to play in preserving rare and endangered species of animals, which in turn helps to preserve biodiversity and natural ecosystems around the world

Zoos consistently rebrand themselves as serious contributors to conservation. The argument that is most commonly used is that zoo animals function as backup populations for wild animals under threat.  

An academic paper titled “Captivity for Conservation? Zoos at a Crossroads”  was published eight years ago.  The paper discusses various issues that speak to the question of whether ‘captivity for conservation’ can be an ethically acceptable goal of the modern zoo. The author reflects on theoretical disagreements involving animal protectionists versus wildlife conservationists. The paper highlights the practical challenges of conservation programmes in zoos, the small percentage of endangered species actually exhibited in zoos, and the disappointing results of reintroduction programs. The content of the aforementioned paper explains why the ‘Noah’s Ark’ paradigm is being replaced by an alternative ‘integrated approach.’ It explores the changes in the zoo’s core tasks that the new paradigm implies and pays special

attention to the changes that would have to be made in zoos’ collection policies: connection with in situ projects, emphasising local species and the local biogeographical region, exchange of animals among zoos and between zoos and wildlife, and a shift towards smaller species. 

The author raises an important question about whether the new paradigm will achieve a morally acceptable balance between the costs of animal welfare and the benefits of species conservation.

In 2000, the South African National Research Foundation put out a call for the establishment of research entities, which led to the first tourism niche research entity which was called Socio-Economic Impact of Tourism after which the name was changed to Tourism Research in Economics, Environs and Society (TREES). Their research focus is in line with the goals and objectives of the National Department of Tourism with a focus on economic, environmental and community issues.  

TREES support the claim made by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that coordinated breeding programmes of wild animals in captivity known as Species Survival Plans serve to guarantee the survival of the species. According to the content of the paper, zoos play a role in preserving rare and endangered species of animals hence preserving biodiversity and natural ecosystems throughout the world. However, the animals held in the zoos have little to no opportunity for release into the wild. 

Based on extensive research carried out by Born Free on wild animals in captivity, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in 1990 identified survival action plans for 1370 species of which 418 were endangered, “the reserve populations of animals kept and bred in captivity are almost never introduced into the wild, especially species non-native to the location to the zoo.” Only 1.4% were identified as being candidates for reintroduction of captive-bred animals. 

Elephants Do Not Belong in Zoos

The academic paper titled Mind and Movement – Meeting the Interests of Elephants published by Dr Joyce Poole and Petter Granliconfirms that elephants captive in zoos and circuses are plagued by a host of physical and psychological ailments that are not observed among their free-living counterparts.  Regardless of the regular health care they might receive, and despite the lack of human predation and the vagaries of drought and disease, captive elephants suffer from obesity, arthritis, foot problems and reproductive and physiological disorders and die at a younger age.  

Elephants in Zoos – A Legacy of Shame is a substantial report which outlines the history and the continuing plight of elephants in zoos across the United States, Canada and Europe, using individual cases the content highlights the impacts of captivity on the physical and psychological health and welfare of individual elephants, the unsustainable nature of existing captive populations, and the impacts of wild capture for captive use on the social stability and conservation of wild elephant populations with the consequences and serious knock-on effects on the wider ecosystems of which they are involved. 

The Legacy of Shame Report was researched and published by Born Free and endorsed by Damian AspinallChris Packham CBEAngela SheldrickDr Cynthia MossDr Winnie KiiruDavid Casselman and Dr Keith Lindsay

The current stereotypical behaviour displayed by Charlie the elephant presently held captive at the Pretoria Zoo, which was filmed whilst he was being bombarded with loud music, is extremely concerning.  This behaviour is described by behavioural experts as the repetitive, purposeless habit of bobbing his head and swaying incessantly.  Neuroscientific research indicates that living in an impoverished stressful captive environment physically damages the brain.   Being confined in barren quarters that lack intellectual stimulation or appropriate social contact has negative effects on the cerebral cortex, a part of the brain involved in higher cognitive functions, and leads to dysregulation of the parts of the brain involved with voluntary movements. This is according to Professor Bob Jacobs in the article The Neural Cruelty of Captivity – Keeping Large Mammals in Zoos and Aquariums Damages their Brainsand the peer-reviewed article Putative neural consequences of captivity for elephants and cetaceans.  


This statement was written in response to the article published in the Mail & Guardian on the 9th November 2023 titled The Vital Role of Zoos in the 21st Century.

The vision of the Pro Elephant Network is a future in which all elephants can thrive in freedom and dignity in their protected natural habitats as part of naturally functioning and evolving ecosystems.  

The mission of the members of PREN is to stop the capture and exploitation of elephants by humans and to advocate for the release of captive-held elephants into the wild.  Where freedom and reintegration into the wild are not possible, PREN seeks the best ethical solutions in the most natural surroundings possible.  The acceptability and viability of these ethics and conditions are to be evaluated relative to what the individual elephant would be able to experience in the wild. 

PREN is a global community of diverse individuals and organisations, united by their common concern for nature, deep association with the natural world and commitment to applying their expertise for the greater good.

Image Credit: Charlie at the Pretoria Zoo 2023 EMS Foundation.

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