Despite their long history, zoos today find themselves within an increasingly competitive leisure and tourism market servicing an audience that is becoming more discerning. Consequently, in seeking to remain popular, zoos now strive to be a more relevant part of society by emphasizing their contribution to wildlife conservation.
However, the effectiveness of zoos as conservation centres continues to be questioned and despite their best efforts, it is not clear how they are perceived by different sections of the community. This research problem to be tackled through the project described in this thesis: Zoo Boards committed to securing long term commercial viability for their organisations face difficult choices regarding conflicting roles of zoos in conservation, education and entertainment. Better understanding of stakeholder perceptions of the relative importance of these roles is essential for the strategic development of zoos.
It does this by presenting and discussing the results of a research project which has investigated the perceptions of zoos in both Australia and in the United Kingdom by their visitors, their own staff and by 'non-zoo‘ wildlife professionals (non-zoo staff). In so doing it provides answers to a number of research questions about the role of zoos in conservation and the perceptions of their key stakeholders—their visitors, their staff and non-zoo wildlife professionals.
This project found little difference between the actions and perceptions of Australian and UK zoos, but significant differences amongst the individual zoos.
The major contribution of zoos comes through their ex situ conservation actions including education programmes, and the breeding and management of captive wildlife. In addition, zoos have recently become more involved with in situ conservation, predominantly through recovery programmes for endangered species in cooperation with government authorities and local communities. However, such activities are expensive and a major obstacle for zoos has always been to strike a balance between commercial success and professional conservation credibility.
The surveys of zoo visitors, zoo staff and non-zoo staff indicated that there are important differences in the way that zoos are perceived. While people visit zoos for a number of different reasons, paramount amongst them is recreation. Conservation is not a major motivation, although most visitors believe that zoos should play a key role in conservation and education. However, the effectiveness of the zoos‘ education activities and the willingness of their visitors to return appear to be strongly linked to their visitors‘ satisfaction with their zoo visit. This is likely to be a reflection of their recreational motivations for coming to the zoo.
The staff see zoos as being primarily concerned with conservation, and in particular with conservation education and the breeding of endangered species. The also perceive zoos to have a greater role in conservation outside the zoo including in situ conservation actions and habitat protection, and this would seem to reflect the conservation policies and actions of many modern zoos. Zoo staff do not regard entertainment as being a high priority, and were somewhat sceptical about how their conservation work is understood and appreciated in the community; few felt that their zoo‘s conservation efforts were appreciated by people outside the zoo, particularly government conservation agencies. Such differences reveal a degree of confusion and uncertainty about the conservation identity and effectiveness of zoos, which may in turn reduce their ability to achieve their conservation goals.
Non-zoo wildlife professionals believe that the role, responsibility, activities and effectiveness of zoos in conservation is far less significant, and should be confined to educating their visitors. Few believed that zoos could assist beyond their traditional areas of expertise—the ex situ activities of conservation education and captive breeding. The in situ conservation role for zoos involving habitat protection and species recovery plans (such as releasing captive bred animals into the wild) does not seem to be appreciated by NZS. Such attitudinal differences are likely to reflect real differences in the perceptions of zoos by the respondents and of their own involvement and understanding of the various zoo activities.
The research in this thesis can only assist zoos as they continue their evolution from menagerie to conservation organization. Zoos have always been dependant on the opinions and attitudes of their stakeholders, but perhaps never so much as they are today. Their complicated ambitions as viable commercial businesses, humane animal management enterprises and effective conservation agencies requires them to understand not only the various objectives of these diverse roles, but also how they are perceived by the communities within which they operate. Zoos have only recently begun to seek such an understanding and this research project provides them with some useful and practical information as well as indicating those areas where further research is still needed.