Opinion: Zoos may be a surprising link to species preservation, climate stabilization

Orangutans

(Su Neko/Creative Commons)

Right now, our planet is losing animal species at a rate not experienced since 65 million years ago, when the last mass extinction wiped out dinosaurs and over 70 percent of all other life on Earth. Species extinction is an invisible killer posing as great a threat to humanity as climate change. If we don’t change course, we could pay the ultimate price: our own extinction.

Civilization as we know it depends on a diversity of plants, animals and bacteria for crop pollination, food from land and sea, medicines, and for maintenance of livable temperatures. Our over-consumption of Earth’s resources has destroyed animal habitats, polluted the environment, and decimated wildlife populations.

Humans created this crisis. We are also able to stop it. The first step is to immediately lower the levels at which we consume the Earth’s limited resources. We must also break the mold of our existing approach to animal species conservation, and implement more effective solutions, ones based on the reality that the health of human beings, wildlife and the planet itself are inextricably linked. It is essential that we forge new partnerships that break the silos which currently constrain conservation efforts.

Health In Harmony is a planetary health organization whose conservation programs are driven by an understanding that human wellbeing is fundamentally linked to the health of surrounding wildlife, and vice-versa. To help in our efforts, we have forged critical partnerships with the places where more Americans learn about our natural world than from any other: zoos.

Zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) provide a connection to the natural world for nearly 180 million people every year, including 51 million students. In fact, more people visit zoos annually than attend every major league professional football, baseball, basketball and hockey game in the Unites States, combined.

The idea that zoos are nothing more than arks for animal species doomed to extinction is antiquated and untrue. AZA zoos are at the forefront of conservation efforts that save animals in the wild from extinction. With the support of their local communities, North American zoos and aquariums have helped bring the whooping crane, the California condor and the black-footed ferret back from the brink of extinction.

This year, zoos have funded $220 million worth of conservation initiatives like Health In Harmony’s in Indonesian Borneo. Zoos are critical partners in Health in Harmony’s efforts to preserve rain forest coverage for orangutan populations and hundreds of other species.

More than a decade ago, Borneo’s Gunung Palung National Park was losing tree cover at an alarming rate. This was mostly due to illegal rain forest logging by people in marginalized communities bordering the park, who had no other way to afford food and health care for their families. Because of the resulting habitat loss, innumerable species were completely lost, while others, such as the Bornean orangutan, became endangered.

Health in Harmony spent over 400 hours listening to people in 40 villages bordering the park. What emerged was a greater awareness of the critical connection between their health and the health of the surrounding rain forest. During our listening exercises, members of these communities designed a holistic intervention that combined health care with jobs training and a reforestation program. In the decade since, there has been an 88 percent reduction in the number of households logging rain forest inside Gunung Palung National Park. The loss of primary rain forest has stabilized, 20,000 hectares are growing back, and – significantly – habitat for 2,500 endangered Bornean Orangutans has been protected.

Our partner zoos around the United States are now able to integrate the story of our success within their own extraordinary orangutan exhibits. Guests learn how the merger of human development and rainforest conservation protects these charismatic animals. And the zoo’s orangutans themselves magnify that understanding: guests learn through these exceptional ambassadors what is needed to protect their wild cousins, as well as other animal and plant species.

News of biodiversity loss and climate change is too often apocalyptic and dire. We have the ability to avoid a sixth mass extinction and must shine a light on these success stories. Unique partnerships like the one between AZA zoos and organizations like Health in Harmony represent an untapped resource for galvanizing efforts to reverse species extinction. Zoos connect game-changing conservation efforts like ours to millions of zoo guests each year, renewing hope for a world where all people respect, value and conserve wildlife in wild places.

Jonathan Jennings is the Executive Director of Health In HarmonyJeff Wyatt, DVM, is Chair of the AZA Accreditation Commission.

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