Page last updated at 12:08 GMT, Monday, 13 February 2006

Zoo deaths fuel breeding debate

by Jonathan Morris
BBC News South West

Orang-utans are facing extinction in their natural habitats

The giraffe and its mother which died in a fire at Paignton Zoo in Devon were the product of an award-winning animal breeding programme.

Like most zoos, Paignton's emphasis is now preservation of endangered species.

And the Rothschild giraffes Kizi and her baby which died at Paignton on Monday are dependent on conservation.

But some question zoos' conservation credentials, saying that money would be better spent supporting wild animals in their natural habitats.

Paignton changed its emphasis from being a showcase for people to gawp at animals to a conservation body in 1996.

The zoo's name and logo was changed to Paignton Zoo Environmental Park and the habitat theme was introduced.

Since then, the zoo, which has more than 2,000 animals spread over 80 acres, has won awards for its conservation work at the zoo and on projects abroad.

Father Paddy, left, with mother Kizi and their baby
Current work includes forest elephant conservation in Nigeria; antelope, rhino and cheetah research in Zimbabwe; and similar research and projects in Tanzania, Malawi, South Africa and Botswana.

The zoo itself is leading the way in conservation work relating to water voles, dormice, meadow thistle and wood ants.

The zoo says that for some species captive breeding is the only way to ensure their survival.

Zoo spokesman Philip Knowling told BBC News: "It is such an important job that we invest a lot of time and effort, care and attention in the work.

"In the single global zoo, we are working together to ensure the continuation of the species.

"Zoos are still places that people visit, but underneath there is a very strong conservation message."

He said that for many species, such as orang-utans and gorillas, zoos were their last refuge.

Natural habitats

"Orang-utans will be extinct in the wild in decades and they will only exist in zoos," he said.

It is a tragedy for the giraffes at Paignton... but that should not prevent us looking at the bigger picture
Will Travers

That picture is challenged by the Born Free Foundation (BFF), which says that money spent by zoos would be better spent supporting endangered species in their natural habitats.

The foundation's CEO Will Travers told BBC News: "The question is what we as humans should be doing in species conservation and I do not think the zoo model is productive in dealing with these issues."

For instance, he said that the 50m planned for Bristol Zoo's expansion would be better directed at organisations like Kenya Wildlife Service (KWS).

"Their budget is $16m (9.15m) a year and they have to cover 45,000 sq km," he said.

"That's 50 times more than the New Forest."

He said that four years ago the KWS and BFF took two Rothschild giraffes like Kizi to a new location.

"We have had five beautiful babies and none of them had to be hand-reared."

Spending by zoos on overseas conservation projects was "a drop in the ocean".

He said: "It is a tragedy for the giraffes at Paignton and I am sure that the keepers are very good people who will be as upset as anyone, but that should not prevent us looking at the bigger picture.

"Do we continue to put money into zoos that were created 200 years ago, or do we go down a different route that offers a real success because it protects animals in their habitats rather than in captivity?"

Zoo to build 50m wildlife park
23 Jan 06 |  Bristol/Somerset
Quarter of primates face abyss
07 Apr 05 |  Science & Environment

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