The Extinction of Zoos in the Covid-19 Era

On July 25, 2020, amid the global crisis caused by the pandemic, a freight vessel collided with a coral reef on the Ile aux Aigrettes in Mauritius. 1.000 tons of oil were spilled into the sea, causing an environmental catastrophe in a nature reserve of high ecological value for its diversity of unique plant, reptile, and bird species (1). A team of specialists from Jersey traveled to the scene. Upon arrival, the air was unbearable; the chemicals in the air caused by the spill required special face masks and other protective gear (Figure 1). Moreover, the time on the island was restricted due to the high risk of intoxication. The plan was to rescue as many animals as possible. The team took several individuals of three endemic and threatened species into safety (2). Without their rapid response, these species would probably be gone now (3).

Figure 1. Dr Nik Cole with Bojer's skink, wearing a mask to protect from the toxic oil fumes. Photo by Durrell (2)

The staff deployed in Mauritius were part of the conservation team at the Jersey Zoo (Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) (Figure 2), one of the zoos that had to close doors during the pandemic, as most zoos around the world did.

In recent months, many companies have resorted to telecommuting or workforce reduction to continue their activity while reducing costs to the minimum required. However, the situation is way more complex in the zoo sector. Staff cannot telecommute; they have to feed and take care of their animals (4) and, in some cases, like the spill disaster in Mauritius, ensure the safety of wild species in their environment as well.

Most zoos rely on entry fees for their operations, and without visitors, the funding vanishes. Without funding, the crisis could lead to permanent closure. The pandemic has been pushing the resilience of zoos for months now. Their closure doesn't just mean an end to a business; there might be consequences for the conservation of some species.

Figure 2. Dr. Nik Cole (DWCT) holds a rescued Bojer's skink. This Critically Endangered species was once widespread across Mauritius and its surrounding islands. However, due to predation by invasive species, this skink is now only found on several small islets of Mauritius (3). Screenshot from Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Mauritian Reptile Rescue (2)

A Long History

The long history of zoos goes back 4,000 years. Zoos began as private collections of exotic animals called "menageries," where animals were kept for display, religion, or showcasing the owner's wealth (5) (Figure 3). As public interest in natural history grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, zoos opened to the public (6). Although the main objective of these zoos was entertainment, they marked the beginning of scientific research and public education, which remain key objectives of modern zoos (7). In the 1960s, many zoos began to show signs of aging and disconnection with society (8).

Figure 3. Royal Menagerie. Exeter. Published in 1816, London. By Rudolph Ackermann

Their survival depended on being seen as an integral and relevant part of their society. In developed countries, zoos began to respond to growing environmental and animal welfare concerns (7). They started the transition into conservation centers adopting three main objectives and justifications to maintain animals in captivity: Conservation, Education, and Research (9). Meanwhile, the updating was slower in developing countries where several welfare allegations were reported (10).

Figure 4. Zoos have changed during the last decades. A diorama in Leipzig Zoo showcases the changes in their institution from the early days on the right side to the present after completing the masterplan. Photo by Borja Reh

Over the past 50 years, the zoo industry has progressed significantly in animal welfare, education, and conservation (Figure 4). However, visitor perception seems to have evolved even faster, often without giving the industry enough time to adapt to a new awareness of captivity.

The reality is that the mere word "zoo" conveys impressions of ancient zoos, bad zoos, circuses, and theme park shows that many find unpleasant (11). These perceptions are often justified, as 90% of the world's zoos do not have accreditation from their respective regional associations. In many cases, they operate with outdated procedures without considering recent advances in animal welfare or the roles they should be undertaking as conservation entities.

While the global zoo industry offers significant funding to wildlife conservation annually, 97% of the capital is raised by North American and European institutions (12). Even within these regions, only a handful of parks are responsible for generating most of the resources, considering that approximately 47% of the total funds are raised by just three big institutions (Wildlife Conservation Society, San Diego Global, and the Zoological Society of London) (13).

Figure 5. Gorilla exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. Photo by Borja Reh

In short, there are "good zoos" that play an important role in wildlife conservation and "bad zoos" that do not contribute to education or conservation in any way; instead, they might be building up opposition to the whole industry.

Prestige Is Key

The "good zoos," those that have a flawless reputation through long-term projects to preserve endangered species, fighting against illegal trafficking, or contributing to scientific research, following an aspirational mission to protect biodiversity, may use their reputation for requesting help in these challenging times. For example, the Zoological Society of London has managed to raise 13.5 million euros to save its Zoo through an ambitious campaign led by Sir David Attenborough (14). Of course, London Zoo is exceptional, and not all zoos have their reputation; Founded in 1826, ZSL is considered the first scientific zoo and has the honor of being Charles Darwin's "playground." Saving the Zoological Society of London also means saving its Institute of Zoology, where hundreds of research and conservation projects are carried out in more than 70 countries. With an annual budget of more than 20 million euros exclusively for the conservation and research of threatened species, it is clear that London Zoo is collecting what it has sown for decades of good practices (13).

Figure 6. Chester Zoo Islands Exhibit. Photo by Mike Peel under CC license

Nevertheless, funding is not the only resource zoos have to protect wildlife; there are examples of smaller institutions that perform equally commendable work for biodiversity. For instance, the Jersey Zoo, with just over 200,000 visitors a year, is not a large institution. However, it generates more than two million euros per year for its conservation projects in Madagascar, Brazil, or Sumatra. Moreover, as mentioned at the beginning of this post, they raised funds and provided the required expertise to react swiftly during the Mauritius spill in the middle of a global crisis (2) (Figure 7).

Figure 7. Matt Goetz examines Bouton's skinks rescued from Mauritius at Jersey Zoo. Photo by Durrell

Dublin Zoo has also managed to raise more than a million euros through public donations (15), allowing the institution to remain open and continue the support of crucial conservation projects around the world. Chester Zoo (Figure 6) is another renowned European institution that manages several successful conservation programs worldwide. They have established adoption programs that engage kids to adopt hundreds of their animals, another successful way to raise funds (16).

What about the Profit?

The institutions mentioned above are nonprofit organizations. There are also private for-profit, as well as public zoos. While the search for profit might influence the operations of private entities, it doesn't mean these organizations are implementing bad practices and cannot play a significant role in conservation. The Singapore Zoo exemplifies that profit is not at odds with progressive zoos focused on biodiversity conservation. This private self-funded organization is among the most beloved and respected zoos by its local people (17) with world-leading conservation and animal welfare practices (18). Supporting over 50 conservation projects in the most threatened ecosystems of Southeast Asia, the Singapore Zoo is also responsible for the rescue and rehabilitation of their local wildlife. In times of crisis, the Singapore Zoo has established a new foundation (Mandai Nature) to multiply its resources in the fight against biodiversity loss, showcasing a clear determination to fulfill its institutional vision (19) (Figure 8).

Figure 8. World-acclaimed free-ranging Orangutan facility at Singapore Zoo. Image by Carmen4 from Pixabay

Emergency Actions

The lack of revenue has forced zoos to undertake different emergency plans, ranging from simple actions such as reducing non-essential staff to highly controversial ones such as the euthanasia of animals as a last resort (20). The Indonesian Zoo Association announced that their members could be pushed, in the worst-case scenario, to slaughter some animals to feed others (21). This measure has also been proposed by a German zoo causing public outrage in some sectors of the population. They finally disregarded the radical action due to social pressure (22,23).

Animal management will be a concern if zoos close down during the current crisis. Historically, when a zoo closes down, the animals are sent to other parks. However, this approach is not feasible since all zoos are running with limited resources (4). The fate of these animals will be at stake.

Besides the future of individual animals in zoos that shut down, it is also necessary to assess the damage caused to wildlife conservation as a whole.

Consequences for Biodiversity

In the midst of the sixth mass extinction (24,25), ex-situ conservation has become a key pillar where the survival of a large number of species under conservation trouble stands (26). All UN State Members are encouraged to use ex-situ conservation as a tool to prevent extinctions according to Article 9 of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) (27). Recently, there has been a huge setback on the missing Aichi Targets of the CBD (28). Consequently, authorities of all UN member countries have been urged to take more decisive actions to tackle every Target with ambition (29). Some Targets, including 12, 13, 19, and 9, are particularly relevant to zoos (29) (Figure 9). Achieving these roles requires all UN state members to push conservation initiatives forward, apply more stringent measures, and support organizations that work on these objectives.

Figure 9. Aichi Biodiversity Targets where ex-situ conservation might be applicable

The shutdown of zoological institutions that never made efforts towards research, conservation, and education will not result in a significant loss for the Aichi targets. However, we cannot afford to lose well-recognized institutions whose reputation is based on defending and protecting wildlife. They are great allies for biodiversity conservation.

Spanish version here


1.        Lewis D. How Mauritius is cleaning up after major oil spill in biodiversity hotspot. Nature. 2020 Aug27;585(7824):172–172.

2.         DurrellWildlife Conservation Trust. Mauritian Reptile Rescue [Internet]. 2020 [cited2021 Jan 24]. Available from:

3.         Bojer’s Skink [Internet]. EDGE of Existence. [cited 2021 Feb 12]. Available from:

4.         WrightR. Some Zoos, and Some of Their Animals, May Not Survive the Pandemic[Internet]. The New Yorker. 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 23]. Available from:

5.         Rothfels N. Savages and beasts: The birth of the modern zoo. JHU Press; 2002.

6.         Hosey G, Melfi V, Pankhurst S. Zoo animals: behaviour, management, and welfare.Oxford University Press; 2013.

7.         Higginbottom K, Cooperative Research Centre for Sustainable Tourism, editors. Wildlife tourism: impacts, management and planning. Altona, Vic: Common GroundPublishing [for] CRC for Sustainable Tourism; 2004. 277 p.

8.         Brambell M. The evolution of the modern zoo. Federation of Zoological Gardens of GreatBritain and Ireland; 1993.

9.         Serrell B. The Role of Zoological Parks and Aquariums in Environmental Education.J Environ Educ. 1981 Mar;12(3):41–2.

10.       Gray J H. An ethical defense of modern zoos. 2015 [cited 2021 Jan 13]; Available from:

11.       Safina C. Where Are Zoos Going—or Are They Gone? J Appl Anim Welf Sci. 2018 Aug31;21(sup1):4–11.

12.       GussetM, Dick G. The global reach of zoos and aquariums in visitor numbers andconservation expenditures. Zoo Biol. 2011;30(5):566–9.

13.       Data taken from the 2018 annual reports of WCS, SDG, and ZSL. WCS, SDG, ZSL; 2018.

14.       Dennett K. David Attenborough to help save London Zoo by fronting £12m campaign[Internet]. Mail Online. 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 23]. Available from:

15.       DublinZoo fundraising campaign tops €1 million. 2020 Nov 18 [cited 2021 Jan 24];Available from:

16.       Gill E.Nursery kids have adopted 248 animals to help Chester Zoo [Internet].Manchester Evening News. 2021 [cited 2021 Feb 10]. Available from:

17.       Mr Lee Kuan Yew wanted a zoo as successful as Singapore [Internet]. TODAY online. 2015[cited 2021 Feb 13]. Available from:

18.       MandaiPark Holdings Yearbook 1920. 2019;51.

19.       Tan C.New fund to boost wildlife conservation efforts in Asia [Internet]. The StraitsTimes. 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 24]. Available from:

20.       BatemanC. COVID-19: Animals face slaughter if zoo funding is not addressed by government, charity warns [Internet]. Sky News. 2021 [cited 2021 Feb 10].Available from:

21.       TheJakarta Post, Iswara MA. Slaughtering zoo animals to feed other animals ‘last resort’ in hunger crisis [Internet]. The Jakarta Post. 2020 [cited 2021 Jan25]. Available from:

22.       Coronavirus:German zoo may have to feed animals to each other. BBC News [Internet]. 2020Apr 14 [cited 2021 Feb 10]; Available from:

23.       Meeka D. Save the Neumünster Zoo Animals, organized by Meeka De Bevoise [Internet] 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 23]. Available from:

24.       Ceballos G, Ehrlich PR, Barnosky AD, García A, Pringle RM, Palmer TM. Accelerated modern human–induced species losses: Entering the sixth mass extinction. Sci Adv.2015;1(5):e1400253.

25.       WakeDB, Vredenburg VT. Are we in the midst of the sixth mass extinction? A view from the world of amphibians. Proc Natl Acad Sci. 2008;105(Supplement1):11466–73.

26.       IUCN S.Guidelines on the Use of Ex Situ Management for Species Conservation. Version2.0. IUCN SSC Gland Switz. 2014;

27.       ASSEMBLYUG. Convention on Biological Diversity. 1992;

28.       VaughanA. “Massive failure”: The world has missed all its biodiversity targets[Internet]. New Scientist. 2020 [cited 2021 Jan 14]. Available from:

29.       GlobalBiodiversity Outlook 5 [Internet]. Convention on Biological Diversity,; 2020[cited 2021 Jan 14]. Available from:

Read the Spanish version here: