By Farnaz Heidari

Why some species are kept in zoos?

April 17, 2017

Many questions arise concerning keeping animals in the zoos around the world. Richard Primack B. Primack in the book of “A primer of conservation biology” page 200 of chapter 6 wrote: “Zoos, along with affiliated universities, government wildlife departments, and conservation organizations, presently maintain 500,000 terrestrial vertebrate individuals, representing almost 8000 species and subspecies of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians." But there are some protests here in Iran against the presence of species such as Persian squirrel, brown bear and also birds such as flamingos in the zoos. What is the reason for this?

Persian squirrel in captivity

Persian squirrel is a bushy-tailed and large eyed mammal. There are four species of squirrels in Iran and all of them are diurnal. Persian squirrel is arboreal and build a nest in a hollow tree. Tree hollows are prime nesting sites for Persian squirrels, providing shelter from the elements and a secure place to raise young. Most female Persian squirrels produce litter in spring and occasionally summer. The young squirrels spend their early lives in a secure nest, emerging at about six weeks old to begin exploring the treetops. 

However, illegal trade in wildlife is responsible for the decline of many Persian squirrels. This species is one of the most pervasive examples of illegal trade and has been reduced to low numbers. Burning trees in order to make the parents escape is a method of catching them and also a threat to the whole habitat. 

Some people buy litters but most of them die because of incorrect handling and maintenance. Persian squirrel such as any wildlife species is not a pet. Once young individuals are deprived of their mother’s care, they usually die but those who survive are vulnerable too. Those negligible percentage of litters are not quite friendly with buyers when they get young and people often have no choice except to release the animal which poses a serious problem as they could be invasive species in the new environment at a foreseeable future.  

It has been estimated that a large amount of litter Persian squirrels are sold in Iran especially in breeding season and many are killed by unconscious people. Animals such as Persian squirrels in captivity may lack the instincts they need to survive in the wild, therefore they have absolutely no chance of survival in the wild and that’s why they are sent to the zoos. 

Zoological collections and similar institutions (collectively referred to as “zoos” henceforth) represent the most powerful agencies of ex situ conservation effort. Zoos have played a pivotal role in the protection and subsequent recovery of a number of endangered species, for example Mauritius Kestrel, Golden Lion Tamarin, and Pere David’s Deer (Mallinson, 1995, 2003; Jiang et al., 2000; Kleiman & Rylands, 2002). However, these programs are still challenging in Iran. Unfortunately some of hyper animal right activists do not agree with zoos because of captivity.

Zoos in Iran need support

Conservation programs in zoos especially in Iran, are limited because of limited space and resources which only allow for a small percentage to be provided with a safe captive breeding. But some of hyper animal right activists are against the whole process of zoos. Zoos latest methods of veterinary medicine especially in the case of healthy breeding colonies of endangered animals in Iran is still denied because of many unstandardized zoos. But in fact, Iran needs zoos just like other countries that have individuals who cannot live in the wild. 

Most species reproduce in abundance in good captive conditions- so much so that the use of contraceptives and other management programs are required to control populations. Some management methods come directly from human and veterinary medicine, while others are novel methods, developed for particular species. Some techniques include cross-fostering, artificial incubations, artificial insemination, embryo transfer, and also genome resource bank which involves freezing purified DNA, eggs, sperm, embryo, and other tissue of species come from zoological efforts so they can be used to contribute to breeding programs, maintain genetic diversity, and perhaps even to reestablish endemic or in some cases extinct species in the future. Some people abandon zoos just because they ignore reasons such as carrying capacity (the number of animals which a region can support without environmental degradation) that make some of individuals less able to tolerate the natural environment if they are returned to the wild. Diseases acquired in captivity may render them unsuitable for release and so on.

All of these reasons may answer of our question: “Why some animals are in captivity?” Our environment needs executive help not just popular pro words. Is it better to let some vulnerable individuals back to the wild although they may be unable to adapt to wild conditions? Contaminated individuals, those entered to new habitats really represent a victory for the rest of that species? We have to be honest, are individuals held in captivity for their own benefit or the benefit of their entire species? On the other hand, we have sufficient efforts being made in zoos to educate the public about conservation values. Those parents who come to the zoo and hear the painful story of animal trafficking such as Persian squirrels, may never buy other wildlife species and tell this to others, they teach their children and so on. In an attempt to regulate and restrict this illegal trade, we needs executive arms such as standard zoos. All zoos in Iran has to obey standard rules and this is our aim when we talk about scientific conservation methods.    

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