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Confinement or Conservation? The role zoos play in the conservation movement

The popularity of zoological institutions has been steadily declining in recent years, as public perception and approval of keeping animals in captivity decreases (Whitworth, 2012). This has lead to an evolution in the role of zoos, with many zoos moving away from strictly entertainment based businesses towards a more conservation focused, globally connected industry (Barongi et al., 2015). All members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) are now required to set conservation-relevant goals (Barongi et al., 2015). As anthropogenic threats to biodiversity in natural ecosystems, such as habitat destruction, climate change, invasive species, and over-exploitation of natural resources, continue to expand (Miller et al., 2004), virtually all ecosystems are undergoing catastrophic declines in their natural species. This is emphasised in Living Planet Index’s latest report, indicating that vertebrates have declined by as much as 58% between 1970 and 2012 (WWF, 2016). It is clear that it will not be possible to halt this decline without pursuing a range of conservation approaches. In this, collection-based institutions can play a significant role in the ex-situ conservation of many species worldwide (Bowkett, 2009).


For species whose habitat is severely threatened, ex-situ populations (outside of their natural habitat) can be maintained in zoos, acting as “arks” or reservoir populations (Rabb, 1994). Global captive breeding programs of such populations for reintroduction into their natural habitat have played a key role in the recovery of at least 17 species whose threat level has been reduced in North America, including the black-footed ferret (Howard et al., 2016) and Californian condor (Conde et al., 2011). Furthermore, the global network provided by the WAZA for the transfer of genetic material between zoological institutions assists in maintaining the genetic diversity of otherwise fragmented populations (Bowkett, 2009), retaining maximum heterozygosity and adaptive potential, avoiding inbreeding, and maintaining reproductive health of these populations (Howard et al., 2016) (Ivy, 2016).


Zoos provide unique opportunities for conservation-relevant research, benefitting not only captive populations but also the conservation management of natural populations and ecosystems. Zoos provide easy access to individuals and populations long-term, allowing researchers to attach significant life-history context to data and samples that would be unavailable from wild populations, due to inaccessible environments, cryptic behaviour of some species, and the possible impacts studies pose to animals in the wild (Barongi et al., 2015). Furthermore, the skills and knowledge acquired in terms of small populations management are critical for the protection of threatened populations in their natural ecosystems (Barongi et al., 2015).


Possibly the most important role zoos play in their contribution to conservation is the potential they play for the education and engagement of the public. Human lifestyle choices are driving the current declines seen in populations worldwide, and a revolution of humans’ behaviour is necessary to halt this decline (Barongi et al., 2015). While many people place an innate value on nature, others need to be convinced of the importance of conserving biodiversity. Due to urbanisation, more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities, a statistic that is likely to increase in coming years (Miller et al., 2004). Zoos provide an opportunity to engage urban populations with living organism in a way they would be unable to experience in their day-to-day lives (Rabb, 1994). In fact, more than 700million people visit WAZA affiliated zoos and aquariums yearly, giving zoos a unique opportunity to influence this large audience in pro-environmental and conservation behaviours, to bring about the attitude-shift needed to halt the worldwide decline of species seen today (Barongi et al., 2015). As such, many zoos have incorporated conservation messages in signs, presentations and campaigns situated around their facilities in order to engage visitors, and encourage their support of conservation goals (Barongi et al., 2015).


A wide range of conservation actions are required to halt the ongoing extreme rate of biodiversity decline seen throughout the world today. Here zoological institutions play an important role, providing reservoir populations and allowing for captive breeding programs, while also engaging the public in conservation projects and pro-environmental behaviours. Furthermore, they provide access to individuals for research purposes that may be otherwise unattainable from wild populations.





Barongi, R., Fisken, F.A., Parker, M. & Gusset, M. (eds) (2015). Committing to Conservation: the World Zoo and Aquarium Conservation Strategy. Gland, Switzerland: WAZA.


Bowkett, A.E. (2009). Recent Captive-Breeding Proposals and the Return of the Ark Concept to Global Species Conservation. Conservation Biology, Vol 23., no. 3, pp. 773-776.


Conde, D.A., Colchero, F., Jones, O.R., & Scheuerlein, A. (2011). An emerging role of zoos to conserve biodiversity. Science, Vol. 331, no. 6023, pp. 1390-1391.


Howard, J.G., Lynch, C., Santymire, R.M., Marinari, P.E. & Wildt, D.E. (2016). Recovery of gene diversity using long-term cryopreserved spermatozoa and artificial insemination in the endangered black-footed ferret. Animal Conservation, Vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 102-111.


Ivy, J.A. (2016). Ameliorating the loss of genetic diversity in captive wildlife populations. Animal Conservation, Vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 112-113.


Miller, B., Conway, W., Reading, R.P., Wemmer, C., Wildt, D., Kleiman, D., Monfort, S., Rabinowitz, A., Armstrong, B. & Hutchins, M. (2004). Evaluating the Conservation Mission of Zoos, Aquariums, Botanical Gardens and Natural History Museums. Conservation Biology, Vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 86-93.


Whitworth, A.W. (2012). An Investigation into the Determining Factors of Zoo Visitor Attendance in UK Zoos. PLoS One, Vol. 7, no. 1, e29839.


Rabb, G.B. (1994). The Changing Roles of Zoological Parks in Conserving Biological Diversity. American Zoologist, Vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 159-164.


WWF. (2016). Living Planet Report 2016. Gland, Switzerland: WWF.



Kakapo conservation – grasping at straws or crowdfunding conservation icon?

By Hannah Graham-Cox

The ever-increasing human population is pushing more and more species towards the brink of extinction. With over 600 endangered species, New Zealand is struggling to prioritise ever decreasing funds from a stretched Department of Conservation (Kirk, 2015). So, how are these tough decisions reached? Many empirical methods have been used to assess whether a species is ‘worth’ conservation intervention. Some are simple and straightforward equations, while some are very convoluted involving many different variables. A novel term coming to the forefront as we realise that not all species can be saved, is triage. Triage in this sense, is the process of prioritising conservation activities; allocating scant resources to achieve maximum conservation returns (Bottrill et al., 2008).

Kakapo are an example of a species that may be designated a ‘lost cause’ if the triage approach were implemented by DOC. This nocturnal, flightless, extremely vulnerable bird was decimated by the combined efforts of human and invasive mammal predation, helped along by habitat loss. Now listed as ‘extinct in the wild’ by the IUCN red list, the only known kakapo are managed on pest free islands (Clout & Merton, 1998).

The history of kakapo is a sad and altogether too familiar one. Once, you could supposedly, “shake six from a single tutu bush” (Langton, 2000, p. 250). But following the arrival of humans and our mammalian co-invaders, the entire species was reduced to 51 individuals by 1995 (Ratley, 2014; Harrison & Moorhouse, n.d.). Helped along by modern technology and intensive management, the population has gradually climbed to just under 160 (News and updates from the Kākāpō Recovery Team, 2016). Kakapo have a limited role in ecosystem functioning mainly through vegetation, root and rhizome removal as well as contributing to seed dispersal through frugivory – mostly of rimu fruit (Clout & Hay, 1989; Gibbs, 2007; Atkinson & Merton, 2006). I have evaluated the general considerations when discussing the value of conserving a critically endangered species using kakapo as an example.

Role as flagship species

Flagship species are enigmatic or charismatic species which act as an ambassador for conservation in a given area or globally. Additional funds raised in the protection of this species may be allocated to other causes or conservation action, thus flagship species are often crucial for conservation (Simberloff, 1998; Bennett, Maloney, & Possingham, 2015). kakapo are what may be termed ‘high risk attention grabbers’ – they are a high profile species at great risk of extinction without immediate intervention. In order for species such as this to maintain public sympathy, results of conservation need to be rapid and tangible; for example, the positive response of kakapo to supplementary feeding in 1990-1991 which resulted in a significant population increase (Towns & Williams, 1993). Thus, it has been relatively straightforward to encourage funding from the general public and large corporations for Kakapo. The run-off effects of kakapo recovery include pest eradication and habitat restoration which benefits other species (Axed fund raises questions, 2012). Fortunately for kakapo, they are also charming and cheeky. A prime example of this is the ambassador for kakapo, Sirocco. Sirocco travels the country raising awareness and funds for the conservation of his species. Due to intensive hand rearing (he was the first male to be hand raised and they had not yet perfected avoiding human imprinting), it was realised that Sirocco had imprinted on humans and would not be a successful breeding bird but could make an excellent ‘public face’ for kakapo conservation (Sirocco, n.d.). After a botched attempt at mating with zoologist Mark Carwardine’s head was filmed and put on youtube, Sirocco shot to international fame. In 2011, two years after the infamous incident, 2000 people pre-ordered tickets to see Sirocco in Zealandia, raising funds for the sanctuary (Sirocco, n.d.).

Simply searching for ‘kakapo crowdfunding’ in Google brings up several campaigns raising funds for kakapo conservation. One example of this successfully raised the full goal of $45,400 which will go towards the kakapo 125 project which is described in the ‘Genetic Considerations’ section (Iorns, et al., 2016).

Endemism and phylogenetic uniqueness

An endemic species is found nowhere else on earth, kakapo are an example of such a species. They are described as  ‘phylogenetically unique’ as they have been evolving in isolation from other related species for millions of years. Much value is placed upon those species which are rare or unique, and an increasing number of management programs prioritise these species. An example of this is the EDGE programme, launched by the Zoological Society of London, which stands for ‘Evolutionarily Distinct and Globally Endangered’ and prioritises conservation efforts on those species which are phylogenetically distinct as well as rare. As the only member of the subfamily Strigopinae, and being one of the world’s most endangered birds, kakapo rate very highly in the EDGE ranking system (EDGE : Bird Species Information – Kakapo, (n.d.).

Intrinsic value

The concept of the inherent value of nature can be traced back to Soulé who states that: ‘biotic diversity has intrinsic value irrespective of its instrumental or utilitarian value’ (Soulé, 1985). Thus in themselves, kakapo, evolving in seclusion for millennia, have value. Humans are also sentimental creatures whose dualism of being a part of nature, yet remaining distinct from it has resulted in feelings of guardianship towards nature (Bromley, 2013). The Māori term for this is kaitiakitanga which, through the partnership with Ngai Tahu and honoring Treaty of Waitangi responsibilities, is a core component of the The Conservation Act 1987 (Kawharu, 2000; Treaty of Waitangi Responsibilities, n.d.). Described as a unique, amusing, and beautiful, kakapo are not a difficult species to love either. In the words of Douglas Adams: “The kakapo is a bird out of time. If you look one in its large, round, greeny-brown face, it has a look of serenely innocent incomprehension that makes you want to hug it and tell it that everything will be alright” (Adams & Carwardine, 2009).

Labour intensive

All known kakapo are heavily monitored on three offshore islands: Whenua Hou (Codfish Island), Anchor Island and Hauturu o Toi (Little Barrier Island). Listed in Table 1. are tasks the Kakapo Recovery team, made up of ten full-time Department of Conservation staff, perform in order to help boost the kakapo population.


What this involves

Supplementary feeding

Food supplied to the ‘wild’ kakapo must be expertly adjusted: too little food and the kakapo may not breed at all or the female may lay few eggs, too much food and the females may produce too many male offspring.

Ongoing predator control

All pests (mostly kiore or Pacific rat) exterminated from the three islands which kakapo have been removed to. Anchor island is still prone to stoat invasions as it is within swimming distance of the mainland, so maintenance must be ongoing on this island.

Artificial insemination

It was found that females who have mated more than once in a breeding cycle produce more fertile eggs than those that only mate once. The team remove sperm from selected males (often those with rare genes or who haven’t had many offspring) and using it to simulate a mating event with a female who has already been mated with in that breeding cycle.

Incubation and hand rearing of chicks

41% of the current kakapo population have been hand raised. This is an intensive process as the egg requires constant, specialised care. Chicks are returned to the wild at 4 months and have a survival rate of 91%.


Each kakapo has a smart transmitter attached to it, sending out data about the health of the bird as well as nesting and mating information. If a nest is established, the kakapo team have rostered ‘night-shifts’ where they guard the eggs or chicks for several months while the female is feeding.

Health checks

Full check-up of the bird is performed including: weighing, taking blood samples, checking the transmitter and removing parasites. This occurs yearly for adult birds, daily for nestlings and every 2-6 weeks for chicks under two years old.

Table 1. Shows the methods through which the Kakapo Recovery Team is attempting to grow the current kakapo population. Adapted from “In the wild” (n.d.).


Kakapo conservation carries a hefty price tag. While finding exact figures of funds raised and tracing their use in kakapo conservation is difficult, in 1990 DOC entered into a partnership with Rio Tinto, New Zealand Aluminium Smelters Ltd and Forest & Bird. This partnership had raised $3.5 million as of 2010 before Rio Tinto dropped out in 2012 (Guyton & Deal, 2010; Axed fund raises questions, 2012). Due to the very ‘hands on’ approach of their recovery detailed above, every cent of that $3.5 million is vital. Much of the rest of the Kakapo Recovery Team’s funding comes from companies such as Meridian Energy, who have recently agreed to a three year partnership assisting the kakapo recovery fund (A Plan for the Future, n.d.). But three years in the grand scheme of kakapo conservation is not long at all –  the long term goal of kakapo conservation is “To restore the mauri (life-force) of kākāpō by having at least 150 adult females” (A Plan for the Future, n.d.). With the current population of less than 160 individuals in total, and incredibly slow and irregular breeding cycles, this could take several decades. As described in the ‘Role as Flagship Species’ section above, crowdfunding is a more recent method for the Kakapo Recovery Group to raise funds for conservation. As is their ‘Adopt a Kakapo’ concept where members of the public can pay $100-500 to ‘adopt’ one of 13 birds currently available on their website (http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/adopt-a-kakapo/).

Genetic Diversity

A species can be described as ‘genetically depauperate’ if it has low genetic diversity compromising its longevity as a species. Genetic diversity in the kakapo population is extremely low after experiencing such a severe bottleneck when the population was reduced to only 51 individuals. All but one of the population’s founders (Richard Henry: the only male from the Fiordland population to produce offspring) came from the same population. Described as a ‘ticking time bomb’, inbreeding depression is the increased likelihood of extinction and results when there is a sustained level of inbreeding due to low population numbers for several generations (Jamieson, Wallis, & Briskie, 2006). Further loss of genetic diversity is being actively managed by DOC through preventing closely related individuals from mating and via a programme termed the kakapo 125 project which aims to sequence the genome of all known living kakapo (Projects – Genome Sequencing – Kakapo, n.d.). Kuia (pictured below), the only daughter of Richard Henry, will be crucial for maintaining diversity in the population. This is because all other kakapo are from a Stuart Island population which had already been isolated prior to human settlement of New Zealand (White et al., 2015a). Despite the efforts already taken, the effects of inbreeding depression are already visible in the current kakapo population and are listed in Table 2.

Kuia, Richard Henry’s daughter, nesting (Thompson, 2016).

Symptom of inbreeding depression

Effect on a population

Evidence of this occurring in the kakapo population

Low fertility High number of infertile eggs or high risk of miscarriage (in mammal populations)

40% of all eggs laid since 1985 have been infertile (average parrot infertility is around 10-15%) (Clout & Merton, 1998; Artificial insemination, n.d.).

Low hatch or chick survival rates

High chick mortality, low recruitment (chicks surviving to adulthood and supplementing the population)

20% of embryos dying early in development (Artificial insemination, n.d.)
Reduced resistance to disease, predation, environmental stress Increased risk of extinction through predation, disease, parasite infection, environmental stress or events (earthquakes, floods etc.)

There are currently fears that exudative cloacitis, a bacterial disease which results in infected birds being unable to breed, may become a serious issue in kakapo populations due to reduced fitness (evolutionary longevity) through low genetic diversity (White, et al., 2015b).

Table 2. Showing the symptoms of inbreeding depression, their effects on populations (or species) and the evidence of this observed in the kakapo population.


It is well documented that humans value rarity, but has conservation reached the stage where we no longer have the luxury of conserving species just because we find them charming and charismatic? Or are species such as kakapo still contributing to conservation funding enough as flagship species that it outweighs their lack of ecosystem functioning? Although often seen as pernicious and fatalistic, the triage approach to conservation has its groundings in prioritisation of increasingly limited resources (Towns & Williams, 1993). With budget cuts to the Department of Conservation occurring almost yearly, we need to have systems in place which will mean that these species not only have funding now, but ongoing – and a department to ensure habitat enrichment & pest control persists. I am of the opinion that species such as the kakapo deserve to be protected purely for their own sake. They represent millennia of evolution and their naivety and fragility despite this are endearing factors alone. Perhaps none could sum this up as well as the legendary Don Merton (pictured below) who has been instrumental in their rescue: “They are our national monuments. They are our Tower of London, our Arc de Triomphe, our pyramids. We don’t have this ancient architecture that we can be proud of and swoon over in wonder but what we do have is something that is far, far older. No-one else has kiwi, no-one else has kakapo. They have been around for millions of years, if not thousands of millions of years. And once they are gone, they are gone forever. And it’s up to us to make sure they never die out.” Sentimental reasons aside, kakapo populations have increased by more than 200% since the 51 recorded in 1995 (Plumb, 2016). If this trajectory is maintained, funds will continue to be raised and the future of kakapo will be more secure.

Chris Smuts-Kennedy, John Cheyne and Don Merton with Mandy the dog. The kakapo is Jill, the second male captured in the Esperance Valley, Fiordland, 1974 (Department of Conservation, 1974).


A Plan for the Future. (n.d.). Retrieved March 27, 2017, from http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/a-plan-for-the-future/

Adams, D., & Carwardine, M. (2009). Last chance to see. London: Arrow Books.

Artificial insemination. (n.d.). Retrieved April 21, 2017, from http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/artificial-insemination/

Atkinson, I. A. E., Merton, D.V. (2006). Habitat and diet of kakapo (Strigops habroptilis) in the Esperance Valley, Fiordland, New Zealand. Notornis. 53;37–54.

Axed fund raises questions. (2012, September). Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/news/7716027/The-commercialisation-of-conservation

Bennett, J. R., Maloney, R., & Possingham, H. P. (2015). Biodiversity gains from efficient use of private sponsorship for flagship species conservation. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 282(1805), 20142693.

Bottrill, M. C., Joseph, L. N., Carwardine, J., Bode, M., Cook, C., Game, E. T., … & Pressey, R. L. (2008). Is conservation triage just smart decision making?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(12), 649-654.

Bromley, A. (2013). A Part of Nature or Apart from Nature? New Professors Explore Human Responses to the Environment. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from https://news.virginia.edu/content/part-nature-or-apart-nature-new-professors-explore-human-responses-environment

Clout, M. N., & Hay, J. R. (1989). The importance of birds as browsers, pollinators and seed dispersers in New Zealand forests. New Zealand journal of ecology, 27-33.

Clout, M. N., & Merton, D. V. (1998). Saving the Kakapo: the conservation of the world’s most peculiar parrot. Bird Conservation International, 8(03), 281-296.

EDGE : Bird Species Information – Kakapo. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://www.edgeofexistence.org/birds/species_info.php?id=1946

Gibbs, G. (2007). Ghosts of Gondwana; The history of life in New Zealand. Nelson: Craig Potton Publishing.

Guyton, S., & Deal, J. (2010). Christmas comes early for kakapo. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from http://www.tbfree.org.nz/christmas-comes-early-for-kakapo.aspx

Harrison, M., & Moorhouse, R. (n.d.). Kakapo (Strigops habroptila). Retrieved March 26, 2017, from http://www.edgeofexistence.org/birds/species_info.php?id=1946

In the wild. (n.d.). Retrieved April 23, 2017, from http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/in-the-wild/

Iorns, D., Digby, A., Robertson, B., & Howard, J. (2016). Sequencing the genomes of all known kākāpō. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from https://experiment.com/projects/sequencing-the-genomes-of-all-known-kakapo?s=discover

Jamieson, I. G., Wallis, G. P., & Briskie, J. V. (2006). Inbreeding and endangered species management: is New Zealand out of step with the rest of the world?. Conservation Biology, 20(1), 38-47.

Kawharu, M. (2000). Kaitiakitanga: a Maori anthropological perspective of the Maori socio-environmental ethic of resource management. The Journal of the Polynesian Society, 109(4), 349-370.

Kirk, S. (2015). No recovery plan to bring 600 native species back from brink of extinction. Retrieved March 26, 2017, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/national/politics/69920422/no-recovery-plan-to-bring-600-native-species-back-from-brink-of-extinction

Langton, G. (2000). Mr Explorer Douglas John Pascoe’s New Zealand Classic [Revised by Langton, G.]. Christchurch, New Zealand: Canterbury University Press, p. 250.

News and updates from the Kākāpō Recovery Team. (2016, November). Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://createsend.com/t/i-35D4E98116C3A980

Plumb, S. (2016). Critically endangered kakapo on the increase – National – NZ Herald News. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from http://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11754390

Projects – Genome Sequencing – Kakapo. (n.d.). Retrieved March 24, 2017, from https://www.geneticrescue.science/projects/genome-sequencing/kakapo

Ratley, N. (2014, July). Back from the brink of extinction. Retrieved March 25, 2017, from http://www.stuff.co.nz/southland-times/news/features/10313116/Boom-A-kakapo-in-the-night

Sirocco. (n.d.). Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://kakaporecovery.org.nz/sirocco/

Simberloff, D. (1998). Flagships, umbrellas, and keystones: is single-species management passé in the landscape era?. Biological conservation, 83(3), 247-257.

Soulé, M.E. (1985). What is conservation biology? Bioscience, 35, pp. 727–734

Towns, D. R., & Williams, M. (1993). Single species conservation in New Zealand: towards a redefined conceptual approach. Journal of the Royal Society of New Zealand, 23(2), 61-78.

Treaty of Waitangi Responsibilities. (n.d.). Retrieved April 27, 2017, from http://www.doc.govt.nz/about-us/our-policies-and-plans/conservation-general-policy/2-treaty-of-waitangi-responsibilities/

White, D. J., Hall, R. J., Jakob-Hoff, R., Wang, J., Jackson, B., & Tompkins, D. M. (2015a). Exudative cloacitis in the kakapo (Strigops habroptilus) potentially linked to Escherichia coli infection. New Zealand veterinary journal, 63(3), 167-170.

White, K. L., Eason, D. K., Jamieson, I. G., & Robertson, B. C. (2015b). Evidence of inbreeding depression in the critically endangered parrot, the kakapo. Animal Conservation, 18(4), 341-347.


Title image: De Roy, T. (n.d.). Kakapo [Photograph]. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from https://www.islandconservation.org/kakapo-population-gets-a-much-needed-boost/

Department of Conservation (1974). Chris Smuts-Kennedy, John Cheyne and Don Merton with Mandy the dog and Jill the kakapo [Photograph]. Retrieved April 24, 2017, from http://www.doc.govt.nz/news/newsletters/behind-the-scenes/archived-newsletters/spring-2014/

Thompson, T. (2016). Kuia, Richard Henry’s daughter, nesting [Photograph]. Retrieved April 27, 2017, from https://www.islandconservation.org/kakapo-population-gets-a-much-needed-boost/

Trap–Neuter–Return: Undermining New Zealand Conservation.


Trap Neuter Return logo. (Retrieved from http://www.ccfaw.org/TNR.html on 1/5/17)

Author: Olivia Carson

In New Zealand, conservation is a crucial tool used to maintain our unique ecosystem. But are our beloved feline friends undoing conservation’s hard work? Cats enjoy preying on some of New Zealand’s endemic species, such as birds like the kiwi, kererū and tui, reptiles like skinks, geckos and tuatara or invertebrates like weta. Statistics show that cats are having an impact on our native fauna, so is it time to revise programs which enable this behaviour to continue?

Trap-Neuter-Return (TNR) is a management technique used in New Zealand (NZ) by participating SPCA clinics whereby wild free-roaming cats, of all ages, are being humanely captured, spayed, and health checked. Upon completion, they are returned to their original habitat where their presence is approved, or they are put up for adoption if they are seen fit for domestication (Levy, et al., 2013). Former SPCA National President, Bob Kerridge, and the majority of NZ’s SPCAs support TNR as it aids in the welfare of, “sick, injured, lost, abused or simply abandoned cats” and it leads to an eventual decrease in the wild cat population (Auckland SPCA, 2016). However, this support is rivalled with opposition from The Department of Conservation (DOC) and conservation minister, Maggie Barry, who in 2015 called for the SPCA to stop the programme altogether, claiming it was destructive to native birds (Smith, 2015). Throughout this article the positive and negative implications of TNR will be explored, arguing that from a conservationist’s perspective, this program, along with feral and stray cats need to go.

Cats are categorised by their behavioural differences, whether they are domestic, stray or feral. Domestic cats are those who live with an owner and depend on humans for their care and welfare. A stray cat is one who was once a domesticated animal but has become lost or abandoned and has their needs indirectly supplied to them by humans or their environment. Feral cats are born and raised in the wild and have few of their needs provided by people and tend to live away from centres of human habitation (Farnworth, et al., 2010). One behaviour which these cats share is their instinct to kill, with studies nationwide showing that many of NZ’s endangered species have targets on their backs.


A stray cat trapped in a TNR cage being released after neutering. (Retrieved from http://iowahumanealliance.org/trapneuterrelease on 1/5/17)

The debate on whether cats should be classified as pests is strongly controversial. 48% of households in NZ accommodate at least one cat, showing that us Kiwis have a real love for these furry creatures (Mckay, et al., 2009). DOC, on the other hand, consider cats as pests, due to their negative impacts on our native species (Abbott, 2008). This begs the question, why are programmes such as TNR supporting the release of these homeless and undomesticated cats back into the wild?

There are many reasons to support the use of TNR. In Rome, Italy, a study on a long-term TNR programme showed that cat colonies decreased by up to 24% over a 6-year period, demonstrating that loss of reproductive ability has a marked effect on the reduction of the number of unwanted kittens (Natoli, et al., 2006). Furthermore, by returning the cat to the environment after veterinary attention, it allowed them to continue using their hunting instincts towards decreasing mammalian pest populations. The same methodology can be applied to NZ as mammalian pests, such as mice and rats are also known to feast on New Zealand’s native species (Towns & Broome, 2003). Therefore, it could be reasoned that if cats were removed altogether from the ecosystem, it might experience a decline in native wildlife due to a rise in the rodent population.

The introduction of cats to NZ has seen some unfortunate outcomes for native species, which underwent evolution during a period where mammalian predators were non-existent (Norbury, et al., 2014). Domestic, stray and feral cats have all contributed to the extinction of 40% of NZ endemic birds (Sijbranda, et al., 2016). In 1894, a single cat was able to completely wipe out an entire species of Stephen’s Island Wren, who were thought to be taking refuge from mammalian pests on Stephen’s Island (Galbreath & Brown, 2004). This reinforces how destructive one cat, who may be from a TNR programme can be.


The stomach contents of one stray male cat in Ohakune, New Zealand. (Retrieved from http://www.doc.govt.nz/news/media-releases/2010/cat-nabbed-raiding-the-mothership/ on 1/5/17).

The average cat kills approximately 65 creatures a year (van Heezik, et al., 2010). Rats, one of NZ’s most devastating pests, arguably contribute just as much damage, along with ferrets, stoats, weasels and possums. Both government and territorial authorities use alternatives to TNR to control these predators which meet humane standards for example poison and traps. It could be debated that although a less favourable outcome for cats, instead of the SPCA spending money on neutering and providing medical attention, it could be considered more humane to euthanise. Recognising this will stop cats from having an unloved life on the street and ensures that no native animals will come to their demise in the future.

If TNR was terminated, then continued pest management would be essential. Instead of neutering and releasing trapped stray and feral cats, they would need to be humanely euthanised. Continued management would also benefit the eradication of the other pests which cats may prey on. New Zealand aims to have a pest-free ecosystem by 2050 and the Government, iwis, and regional councils are showing their support to this cause by providing approximately $70 million annually towards predator control (The Department of Conservation, 2014). This sum would continue to benefit pest management if TNR was stopped. There are humane pest control options which could be better advertised to the public (Goodnature and Victor professional traps), which may increase support, reinforcing that we don’t need cat input to sort our pest problem, just people’s support.

The negative consequences of having stray and feral cats in our environment far outweigh the positives. Most cat owners are reasonable people, agreeing that measures such as mandatory microchipping, registration and compulsory neutering, would allow for better care of future stray cats. If people complied with these rules, then stray cats could be returned to their owners. We don’t need to remove our much-loved pets altogether, but our native fauna needs protection too, the ones that define us as a nation, and for this to be achievable, TNR must go. TNR currently undermines conservation practices by allowing destructive animals to continue to roam freely. If it weren’t for cats “most-loved” status, it wouldn’t be an issue, as we don’t see rats being neutered and returned to the wild, do we?


Abbott, I. (2008). The spread of the cat (Felis catus) in Australia: Re-examination of the current conceptual model with additional information. Conservation Science Western Australia, 7, 1-17.

Auckland SPCA (2016). What We Do. Retrieved from Auckland SPCA: https://www.spcaauckland.org.nz/what-we-do/

Farnworth, M., Dye, N., & Keown, N. (2010). The legal status of cats in New Zealand: A perspective on the welfare of companion, stray and feral domestic cats (Felis catus). Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science, 13, 180-188.

Galbreath, R., & Brown, D. (2004). The tale of the lighthouse-keeper’s cat: Discovery and extinction of the Stephens Island wren (Traversia lyalli). The Ornithological Society of New Zealand, Inc, 51, 193-200.

Levy, J., Gale, D., & Gale, L. (2013). Levy, J. K., Gale, D. W. Evaluation of the effect of a long-term trap-neuter-return and adoption program on a free-roaming cat population. Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 222, 42–46.

Mckay, S., Farnworth, M., & Waran, N. (2009). Current attitudes toward, and incidence of, sterilization of cats and dogs by caregivers (owners) in Auckland, New Zealand. Journal of applied animal welfare science, 12, 331-344.

Natoli, E., Maragliano, L., Cariola, G., Faini, A., Bonanni, R., Cafazzo, S., & Fantini, C. (2006). Management of feral domestic cats in the urban environment of Rome (Italy). Preventive Veterinary Medicine, 77, 180-185.

Norbury, G., Hutcheon, A., Reardon, J., & Daigneault, A. (2014). Pest fencing or pest trapping: A bio-economic analysis of cost-effectiveness. Austral Ecology, 39, 795-807.

Sijbranda, D., Campbell, J., Gartrell, B., & Howe, L. (2016). Avian malaria in introduced, native and endemic New Zealand bird species in a mixed ecosystem. New Zealand Journal of Ecology,, 40(1), 72-79.

Smith, O. (2015). Express. Retrieved from Feral politics: New Zealand’s two-cat policy sparks FUR-ious row. http://www.express.co.uk/news/world/582420/New-Zealand-s-Prime-Minister-John-Key-two-cat-policy-controversy

The Department of Conservation. (2014). Predator Free 2050 [Brochure]. New Zealand. Retrieved from http://www.doc.govt.nz/Documents/our-work/predator-free-2050.pdf

Towns, D., & Broome, K. (2003). From small Maria to massive Campbell: Forty years of rat eradications from New Zealand islands. New Zealand Journal of Zoology, 30(4), 377-398.

van Heezik, Y., Smyth, A., Adams, A., & Gordon, J. (2010). Do domestic cats impose an unsustainable harvest on urban bird populations? Biological Conservation, 143(1), 121-130.

Conservation versus Agriculture: Searching for a solution to New Zealand’s land-use conundrum.

By David Munro

In New Zealand, conservation and agriculture are often considered two polar opposites in terms of land management. Conservation aims to restore native biodiversity, something commonly achieved by reverting land from farmland to native bush and encouraging the return of wildlife. Agriculture however, often works against this by actively removing native habitat to make room for pasture for the grazing of introduced livestock. New Zealand policy makers are stuck between a rock and a hard place,

Dairy cattle in Taranaki, New Zealand. Dairy is one of New Zealand’s largest primary industries. Credit: Dave Young.

as on one hand they actively encourage and practice conservation, but also need to support agriculture as it is the backbone of the New Zealand economy. In fact, over half of New Zealand’s total land area is used for the sheep, beef and dairy industries (Statistics NZ, 2012), and the revenue earned from these is the single largest contributor to the New Zealand economy (Walls, 2017). How, then, can agriculture and conservation work together to both achieve their goals if they are currently practiced in such directly opposing ways?


Globally, scientists are now calling for a union of agriculture and conservation. Conservationists are discovering that protecting reserves alone will be insufficient to preserve biodiversity (Garcia et al., 2005). Meanwhile. It has been widely suggested that a solution to the problem of competing land uses is to adopt low-intensity farming where agriculture and conservation are practiced on the same land (Bignal et al., 1996; Matson & Vitousek, 2006). Our frame of thought must shift from viewing agriculture and conservation as two opposing practices, but rather see them together as one integrated land-type which meets both food production and conservation goals.

The two most common features of low-intensity farming are riparian buffer zones and habitat islets. Riparian buffer zones are areas along the margins of waterways which are not used for grazing, and they can take many forms.In New Zealand, riparian buffers often involve having up to 10 metres of native bush planted along each flank of a waterway. This provides habitat for terrestrial species while also reducing soil erosion, preventing leaching of fertilizer into waterways, as well as shading the waterway, improving the water quality for aquatic species (Ryan et al., 2003; Matson et al., 1997; Joy & Death, 2013).

An example of riparian planting in New Zealand. Retrieved from DairyNZ

Habitat islets refer to patches (‘islets’) of native habitat in a sea of pasture. These islets provide habitat for native species, improve surrounding soil quality by depositing leaf litter, and provide shade and shelter for livestock (Beneyas et al., 2008; Erickson et al., 2002). These islets allow for regular agricultural practices to continue around them , while low-intensity farming offers a solution where agriculture can continue over large scales. Low-intensity farming provides benefits for both conservation efforts and agricultural practices, but is not without its downsides.

Small patches of habitat, such as those created by riparian buffer zones and habitat islets, have fundamental differences to large reserves. Some animal species, including many of New Zealand’s native birds, are described as timid to open habitats. This means that they will not inhabit small habitat fragments or dwell near the edge of a forest, and therefore require large forested habitats in which they can roam. Because of this, low-intensity farming may be unsuccessful at conserving a large number of our native species (Green et al., 2005), and may instead favour less timid exotic species. These patches of habitat often also harbour pest species such as rats and possums (Ryan et al., 2003; Beneyas et al., 2008; Matson et al., 1997). The former is of concern to conservation, as it is a predator species for many native birds and insects, while the latter is a carrier of bovine tuberculosis. If these habitat patches harbour possums, then they may be of concern to agricultural practices. The risk of a herd of cattle becoming infected with bovine tuberculosis has been found to be higher the closer the herd is to an area of bush (Porphyre et al., 2008). Areas of low-intensity farming also tend to be less productive than areas of intensive farming, typically due to a lower density of livestock (Green et al., 2005). Because of this, low-intensity farming requires more land to achieve the same levels of production as highly intensive farming. This in turn reduces the amount of land available for the large conservation reserves which are required for the conservation of timid species. It may therefore make sense to maximise the land for conservation by minimising the amount of agriculture area, which can only be achieved by further intensification of agriculture.

Having habitat islets within agriculture is one method of low-intensity agriculture. Retrieved from Bird Life International.

How then should New Zealand approach this land-use conundrum? Low-intensity agriculture not only provides benefits for conservation, but also provides a number of other environmental, economic and productive gains. Costs such as the initial establishment of and pest management within habitat patches and will be outweighed in the long run by the prevention of soil erosion, return of ecosystem services, and by aesthetic and moral value of assisting conservation efforts. Despite the large area of land necessary for low-intensity farming to match the production of high-intensity farming, the benefits outweigh the negatives. This leaves one final question, how can we successfully integrate conservation and agriculture?

Conservationists and farmers frequently butt heads over issues facing New Zealand, and achieving cooperation between these two parties can often be difficult. Harvey et al. (2008) suggests a framework for encouraging farmers to adopt low-intensity practices and to avoid this conflict. The suggestions include:

  1. Using economic tools as incentive for participation, such as subsidising establishment costs,
  2. Improve environmental laws and their enforcement to ensure a baseline level of cooperation,
  3. Strengthen ties between farmers, conservationists and other groups, aligning their goals and encouraging collaboration,
  4. Provide and encourage participation in certification schemes, and
  5. Leverage political support at multiple levels, including local and district council’s as well as centralised government.

While these suggestions provide a good theoretical framework, other studies have suggested that the most important motivating factors for a farmer to partake in conservation practices on their land are to do with the value they place on their land (Ryan et al., 2003; Erickson et al., 2002). This includes wanting to preserve the land and/or nature for future generations, and appearing to be good stewards of the land. Possessing these values made it more likely for farmers to practice conservation than external factors such as economic gain (Ryan et al., 2003). Instilling pride in New Zealand’s natural heritage may become the most useful tool for encouraging the adoption of low-intensity farming in New Zealand’s rural communities.

Low-intensity farming is one of many possible solutions to New Zealand’s competing land-use dilemma. By integrating conservation and agricultural practices on the same land, the benefits of each can still be achieved, albeit in a less comprehensive manner than when the two operate separately. Low-intensity farming may not provide all of the solutions to land-use related problems, but fostering cooperation between conservationists and farmers will go a long way toward reaching a more sustainable future for this country.


Works Cited

Benayas, J. M. R., Bullock, J. M., & Newton, A. C. (2008). Creating woodland islets to reconcile ecological restoration, conservation, and agricultural land use. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 6(6), 329-336.

Bignal, E. M., & McCracken, D. I. (1996). Low-intensity farming systems in the conservation of the countryside. Journal of Applied Ecology, 413-424.

Bird Life International. (2003). Less Favoured Areas and High Nature Value farmland. Retrieved from: http://www.birdlife.org/europe-and-central-asia/less-favoured-areas-and-high-nature-value-farmland

DairyNZ. Retrieved from: https://www.dairynz.co.nz/environment/waterways/

Erickson, D. L., Ryan, R. L., & De Young, R. (2002). Woodlots in the rural landscape: landowner motivations and management attitudes in a Michigan (USA) case study. Landscape and Urban Planning, 58(2), 101-112.

Foley, J. A., DeFries, R., Asner, G. P., Barford, C., Bonan, G., Carpenter, S. R., … & Helkowski, J. H. (2005). Global consequences of land use. Science, 309(5734), 570-574.

Garcia, C. A., Bhagwat, S. A., Ghazoul, J., Nath, C. D., Nanaya, K. M., Kushalappa & Vaast, P. (2010). Biodiversity conservation in agricultural landscapes: challenges and opportunities of coffee agroforests in the Western Ghats, India. Conservation Biology, 24(2), 479-488.

Green, R. E., Cornell, S. J., Scharlemann, J. P., & Balmford, A. (2005). Farming and the fate of wild nature. Science, 307(5709), 550-555.

Harvey, C. A., Komar, O., Chazdon, R., Ferguson, B. G., Finegan, B., Griffith & Van Breugel, M. (2008). Integrating agricultural landscapes with biodiversity conservation in the Mesoamerican hotspot. Conservation biology, 22(1), 8-15.

Joy, M. K., & Death, R. G. (2013). Freshwater biodiversity. Ecosystem Services In New Zealand. Manaaki Whenua Press, Lincoln, New Zealand.

Matson, P. A., Parton, W. J., Power, A. G., & Swift, M. J. (1997). Agricultural intensification and ecosystem properties. Science, 277(5325), 504-509.

Matson, P. A., & Vitousek, P. M. (2006). Agricultural intensification: will land spared from farming be land spared for nature?. Conservation Biology, 20(3), 709-710.

Porphyre, T., Stevenson, M. A., & McKenzie, J. (2008). Risk factors for bovine tuberculosis in New Zealand cattle farms and their relationship with possum control strategies. Preventive veterinary medicine, 86(1), 93-106.

Ryan, R. L., Erickson, D. L., & De Young, R. (2003). Farmers’ motivations for adopting conservation practices along riparian zones in a mid-western agricultural watershed. Journal of Environmental Planning and Management, 46(1), 19-37.

Young, D. (2012). Cattle in New Zealand. Retrieved from: http://www.fauna-flora.org/new-zealands-changing-landscape/taranaki-dairy-farm/

Is Christianity Bad News for Conservation? Christian faith and the three R’s


I’m working as a hotel maid to put myself through grad school. One morning I arrived for my shift to find a couple in the lobby complaining to the manager about noisy students. “They kept us up all night!” they cried, “They were drunk and very disrespectful!” I stepped into the elevator to go to my floor, and the couple entered with me. As the doors closed they eyed me sideways and asked, “You’re not a student, are you?”

Reasoning that most students at my University were well behaved was as hopeless as trying to escape from the moving elevator. In their minds, at that moment, they were convinced that all students were reckless. Part of me didn’t blame them. I came away from the experience wondering if there are similar social biases in conservation.

In 1967 Lynn White argued that Christianity was the cause of our ecological crisis because “Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen” (White 1967). White is not alone in this view. Hitchens argues that Christianity is dangerous to society and the natural world (Hitchens 2009). My own assigned textbook for this course, The Handbook of Ecological Restoration, begins by warning that the Judeo-Christian paradigm shows “no sign of any kindness or respect” with regard to the earth (Perrow 2003).

Natural scientist Dr. Alister McGrath asserts, “Lynn White is completely right when he argues that human self-centeredness is the root of our ecological crisis and completely wrong when he asserts that ‘Christianity is the most anthropocentric religion the world has seen’.” (McGrath 2002). McGrath goes on to argue that the traditional Christian idea of stewardship emphasizes the wise use, preservation and protection of the natural world consistent with a reservation and reconciliation ethos. Additionally, a key theme central to Christian teaching is restoration and renewal, an idea that resonates strongly with the restoration ethic. In fact, one of the core tenets of Christianity is to put the interests of others ahead of self-interests. Most of the first hospitals, hospices and educational institutions have a Christian origin (Aitken 1984). Such a commitment to the wellbeing of others resonates strongly with a reconciliation focus.

It is possible that claims made against Christianity as anti-environmental may stem from not only a misunderstanding of the Christian idea of stewardship, but also from equivocation of Christianity to the Western world. Arguably, most of the damage done to the environment in the last century has been cause by the West. However, Christian groups seem to be highly involved in the conservation movement. Environmentalist Allison Scherberger conducted a study comparing the efficacy of secular and Christian conservation groups in the western world. Christian groups were found to be more numerous and have higher numbers of volunteers than secular groups. She concluded that because reservation, restoration and reconciliation are all based on values, Christian conservation groups are becoming “particularly key players” in the environmental movement (Scherberger 2011). Influences from such Christian groups can be seen in many different facets of conservation.

This begs the question: is Christianity a threat to conservation? To investigate this question, I examined Christian influences in the three major arenas of conservation; namely reservation, restoration, and reconciliation ecology. Reservation ecology seeks to preserve an ecosystem by preventing its exploitation. Restoration ecology is the practice of renewing a degraded, damaged or destroyed ecosystem. Reconciliation ecology aims to alter human-dominated landscapes in order to make them usable by native species (Rozenweig 2003).


On February 12th, 2005, six shots rang out in the Brazilian Rainforest as Sister Dorothy Stang was killed. The Catholic nun had dedicated her life to protecting the Anapu rainforest and its indigenous people from loggers (Domit 2008). Following Stang’s death, Brazilian president Inacio da Silva finally agreed to set aside 20,000 square miles in the region as a natural reservation. Deforestation rates began dropping in the Brazilian Amazon immediately (Figure 1) and have continued to lessen (National Institute for Space Research, INPE).



Figure 1: Annual Deforestation rates in the Amazon Rainforest







Figure 2: Current deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest









The Columbia is the longest river that flows into the Pacific Ocean in North America. It boasts one of the largest drainage basins on the continent. In 2001, twelve bishops representing 1.5 million Catholics in the USA and Canada composed the Watershed Document in which they argued that the Columbia River had been irresponsibly dammed, polluted and overfished.  They called on all people of goodwill to work together for its immediate restoration, writing: “Stewards, as caretakers for the things of God, are called to care for the earth as their home, and as a beautiful revelation of the creativity, goodness, and love of God.” (Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project 2001)



A Rocha Aotearoa is a Christian conservation team in New Zealand dedicated to creating sustainable communities. Their website reads: “The rapid decline of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity we currently face are directly linked to unsustainable patterns of living.  We believe that we are called to live more sustainably. A Rocha communities offer places to explore with others how we can together seek the well-being of humans, the land and other species.” They are one of the few organizations actively working to create communities reconciling people to nature.


Does Christianity truly pose a threat to conservation? It defines stewardship as the respectful protection of the natural world. Christian environmental groups are involved with every facet of conservation from reservation to restoration to reconciliation ecology.

In academia we often come to our ‘elevator conversations’ with presuppositions. Perhaps these dialogues should be more nuanced and empathetic. After all, the point of coming to university is not to become insensible, but it’s exact opposite: to learn. The crux of Christianity is not to abuse nature, but to be its faithful steward.


Xandra Carroll





Works Consulted


Aitken, J. T. (1984). The influence of Christians in medicine. London: Christian

Medical Fellowship.


Columbia River Pastoral Letter Project., & Catholic Church. (2001). The Columbia

River Watershed: Caring for creation and the common good. Seattle, WA: Columbia River Project.


Domit, M. (2008). Rancher to be Charged in 2005 Killing of Nun in Amazon. New

York Times.


Hitchens, C. (2009). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York,

N.Y: Twelve.


McGrath, A. E. (2002). The reenchantment of nature: The denial of religion, and the

ecological crisis. New York: Doubleday. Page 54.


Perrow, M. R. (2003). Principles of restoration. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Page 3.


Rosenzweig, M. L. (2003). Win-win ecology: How the earth’s species can survive in

the midst of human enterprise. New York: Oxford University Press.


Scherberger, A. (2011) Conservation and Christianity: Outcomes and Values Driving

Faith-based Conservation. Duke University Press. Page 14


White, L. (1967). The Historical Roots of Our Ecological Crisis. Science 155: 1203-7.



The Gods Must Not be Disturbed: Conservation through sacred forest groves

By S.Vishnu Vardhan

Sacred forest groves – regions deep in the forest’s belly conjuring images of witches and shamans with voodoo dolls praying to ancestors and spirits in the eerie glow of the full moon amidst the cacophony of cackling hyenas, howling wolves and the bleats of the goat awaiting its imminent slaughter.  Regardless of the veracity of this fantastic, other-worldly scene commonly propagated through popular fiction, it is undeniably true that sacred groves are reservoirs of biodiversity (Chandrakanth et al., 2004; Verschuuren et al., 2010).  Defined as “parcels of uncut forest vegetation in the name of certain deities or natural or ancestral spirits” (Chandrakanth et al., 2004)”, sacred groves are known to have a distribution of species sometimes similar to neighbouring protected forest areas (Bhagwat et al., 2005).  They are known to house many rare, endemic and threatened species (Singh et al., 2011). Additionally, they consist of all types of natural features including mountains, rivers, lagoons, caves, springs and so much more (Verschuuren et al., 2010).

In an age of increasing population and resource consumption, the growing scarcity of land makes reservation of new areas an increasingly difficult and untenable form of conservation.  Alternative forms of conservation that respect the rights of local people and encourage coexistence are sure to rise in prominence.  Sacred groves are common in many parts of Africa and Asia, but studies in the broader geography are incomplete.  There are 100,000-150,000 sites in India alone.  Tanzania has about 920 sites covering about 6000km2.  Similar sites are found throughout Africa in Ethiopia, Kenya, Algeria, Morocco and in Japan and China (Verschuuren et al., 2010).  This essay seeks to briefly outline the major threats facing such groves and possible ways forward.

Sacred groves in Meghalaya, India (Choudhary, 2017)

Property rights related issues are a major threat facing sacred groves in countries like India (Chandrakanth et al., 2004).  Since community owned sacred groves are owned by the state government, the villagers are unable to enforce the property boundary against encroachers.  This, coupled with the laxity and ineffectiveness of the state government in enforcement encourage private planters and loggers to encroach upon sacred groves.  Thus, devolving ownership of the land to communities would incentivise them to protect the groves since they would be the direct beneficiaries and have the highest stake in conserving the forest.

When sacred groves are located in state-owned forest reserves, there are occasional conflicts between national and local interests (Kolavalli, 1997).  The locals perceive groves as a living resource with gods and spirits that can be used but must also be protected for future generations whereas the state treats forests as a resource that can either be harvested or conserved (Nagendra & Gokhale, 2008).  On the other hand, it is understandable that in a secular country, forest departments cannot give preferential access to forest resources to communities for religious purposes without alienating other groups.  Hence, it is necessary for forest departments to be proactive and not get bogged down in the quagmire of bureaucracy.  This could be done through finding creative solutions to incorporate sustenance of sacred groves in the existing legislative framework.  For example, in the case of groves in Kerala where even removing a twig might be considered taboo, the forest department has given monetary incentives to owners to conserve their groves (Nambudiri, 2012).

Another major threat facing sacred sites are changing social norms and belief systems (Verschuuren et al., 2010).  Today, the younger generations no longer enter the forests like their father and grandfathers (Niamir, 1990) due to multiple factors like population explosion, rural-urban migration, westernised lifestyles, and desire for economic development.  These have slowly pushed traditions and cultures to the periphery (Niamir, 1990; Shepherd, 1991).  Lack of government support by authorities who provide cutting licences to loggers and collect money from illegal loggers even when caretakers request help to stop the illegal cutting further worsen the situation (Sibanda, 1997).  As a result, a pattern of loss of sacred sites is emerging in across Africa (Kenya, Tanzania) (Bagine, 1998; Madewaya et al., 2004), China (Huabin, 2003) and India (Verschuuren et al., 2010).

Considering the importance of sacred groves towards conservation across the world, ensuring their continuity would require governments to provide a proper legal foundation to safeguard the property and usage rights of the indigenous people as well as providing them with appropriate economic incentives.  However, it is sacrosanct to remember that they have every right to pursue a modern lifestyle with the amenities and comforts enjoyed in today’s urban environments.  Striking such a compromise between traditional sacred values, modern secular principles and working towards sustainable change would help sacred groves serve as a model for community-based, decentralized resource management.



Bagine, R. (1998). Biodiversity in Ramogi Hill, Kenya, and its evolutionary significance. African Journal of Ecology, 36:251-263.

Bhagwat, S., Kushalappa, C., Williams, P., & Brown, N. (2005). The role of informal protected areas in maintaining biodiversity in the Western Ghats of India. Ecology & Society, 10(1): 8.

Chandrakanth, M., Bhat, M., & Accavva, M. (2004). Socio-economic changes and sacred groves in South India: Protecting a community-based resource management institution. Natural Resources Forum, 28:102-111.

Choudhary, V. (2017, April). Sacred Groves of Meghalaya – complete detail – updated. Retrieved from Abhinav Nature Conservation: http://natureconservation.in/sacred-groves-of-meghalaya-complete-detail-updated/

Huabin, H. (2003). ‘Sacred natural sites in Xishuangbanna, in south-western China’, in ‘The importance of sacred natural sites for biodiversity conservation’, Proceedings of the International Workshop held in Kumming and Xishuangbanna Biosphere Reserve, People’s Republic of. Paris: UNESCO.

Kolavalli, S. (1997). Joint Forest Management: Optimal Property Rights? In A. Agarwal, The challenge of the balance: Environmental economics in India. Centre for Science and Environment. New Delhi.

Madewaya, K., Oka, H., & Matsumoto, M. (2004). Sustainable management of sacred forests and their potential for eco-tourism in Zanzibar. Bulletin of FFPRI (Forests and Forest Products Research Institute in Japan), 3:33-48.

Nagendra, H., & Gokhale, Y. (2008). Management regimes, property rights, and forest biodiversity in Nepal and India. Environmental Management, 41(5):719-733.

Nambudiri, S. (2012, June). Special incentive to protect sacred groves in Kerala. Retrieved March 2017, from The Times of India: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Special-incentive-to-protect-sacred-groves-in-Kerala/articleshow/13835754.cms

Niamir, M. (1990). Traditional woodland management techniques of African pastoralists. Unsylva, 41:49-58.

Shepherd, G. (1991). The communal management of forests in the semi-arid and sub-humid regions of Africa: Past practice and prospects for the future. Development Policy Review (pp. 9:151-176). (SAGE, London).

Sibanda, B. (1997). Governance and the environment: The role of African religion in sustainable utilisation of natural resources in Zimbabwe. Forests, Trees and People, Newsletter, pp. 34:27-31.

Singh, H., Agnihotri, P., Pande, P., & Husain, T. (2011). Biodiversity conservation through a traditional beliefs system in Indian Himalaya: a case study from Nakuleshwar sacred grove. The Environmentalist, 31(3):246-253.

Verschuuren, B., Wild, R., McNeely, J., & Oviedo, G. (2010). Sacred natural sites. Conserving nature and culture. Earthscan.

The SeaWorld Controversy: Not so Black and White

Looking Into Zoos and Aquariums and the Controversies Behind Them

By Brenda Perez


When I was a little kid, I remember going to the aquarium and being mesmerized by all the different sea creatures. In the sixth grade, I told my friends that I wanted to be a marine biologist so that I would be able to work with sea animals. I distinctly remember my friend teasing me and telling me that I would be one of the people training and doing shows with the dolphins. At age 12, that sounded like a dream. However, ten years later I have achieved my dream of becoming a marine biologist, but have chosen not to pursue the path of being a dolphin trainer. As a child, or even as an adult coming from a non-scientific viewpoint, you don’t tend to think about all the negative aspects that come with not only theme parks with animals, but all zoos and aquariums. As I have gone through life and school, I have a greater understanding of marine biology and conservation which has lead me to consider both advantages and disadvantages of these situations. When thinking about controversies such as SeaWorld, one has to go further and look at the positive and negative aspects of aquariums and zoos in general.

When is it conservation and when is it cruelty: The good, the bad, and the compromise

Zoos and aquariums provide researchers with the ability to study the behavior of animals in their “natural” environment (Ballanthyne et al. 2007). They frequently house the last individuals of the most threatened species around the world (Clarke 2009) and act not as a replacement for saving animals, but as a last resort or “holding area” for endangered species due to the fact that their native habitats are uninhabitable (Conway 2011). Captive breeding is also used in an effort to stabilize the species to a point where they will be able to sustain themselves in the wild (Hutchins et al. 2003).

Additionally, zoos and aquariums help educate the public about several things that they would otherwise not normally be exposed to. By visiting these facilities, people can learn about how global warming affects animals and environments, biodiversity issues facing species (Kawata 2013), and specific issues facing animals in their region (Whitham and Wielebnowski 2013). People get to connect with animals on a

Pamphlet given out at Zoo Atlanta with information about endangered species and conservation efforts. (Zoo Atlanta)

Image 1: Pamphlet given out at Zoo Atlanta with information about endangered species and conservation efforts. (Zoo Atlanta)

personal level and are exposed to not only environmental education, but also conservation strategies (Image 1) and what they can do to help (Patrick et al. 2007). They get emotionally engaged and become more open to communication about conservation both locally and worldwide (Ballantyne et al. 2007). After their visits to aquariums and zoos, people recognized that they could be a part of the solution to environmental problems by taking action in conservation efforts. Visitors believe that zoos and aquariums play an important role in animal care and conservation education and left feeling a stronger connection to nature (Falk et al. 2007; Heimlich et al. 2005). Many people in the central regions of countries would not be exposed to marine issues if it weren’t for aquariums, and they, along with zoos, provide additional insight on issues facing animals and environments globally. However, these are aspects that people do not initially take into account when thinking about zoos and aquariums.


When you ask most children what they think of SeaWorld, their immediate response is excitement about all of the amazing animals they have there. However, when you ask many adults, their first instinct is skepticism and resentment towards the conditions of said animals.

SeaWorld is criticized heavily by the public for several reasons: forcing its animals to put on shows for audiences, keeping them in tanks that are far too small, capturing animals from the wild, and separating families. But the public has been largely swayed by the media, which tends to focus on the negatives, as well as the “documentary” Blackfish, a persuasive piece that looks at only one side of the situation and appeals to human emotions. Granted, Blackfish brings these up as valid points but they do so in a manipulated context (Pierce 2015). In SeaWorld, killer whale calves are kept with their mothers and whales haven’t been captured from the wild in over 35 years. All of the animals that reside in any of their parks are taken care of physically and well treated (Walsh et al. 1994). They are studied for animal research in ways that scientists are unable to achieve in the wild (Falcato 2016). SeaWorld has rescued over 27,000

Children are exposed to and learn about killer whales and the importance of conservation efforts.

Image 2: Children are exposed to and learn about killer whales and the importance of conservation efforts. (SeaWorld)

animals and many of them have been returned to the wild after rehabilitation (Parham 2001). Busch Gardens, a SeaWorld park, has several birds, reptiles, and mammals on display at each location. Busch Gardens Tampa Zoo alone has over 12,000 animals including 250 species, of which more than 30 are threatened or endangered. In a little over ten years, the SeaWorld and Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has given more than $10 million to over 700 projects around the world (Pierce 2015). Additionally, SeaWorld offers camps for children which educate them about all aspects of sea life and gets them involved from an early age (Image 2). While we may not agree with all aspects of SeaWorld, we have to realize that there are a great number of benefits that happen behind the scenes.

Aquariums and Zoos

Zoos and aquariums get criticized for the stress that they may cause to their animals (Morgan and Tromborg 2007). Touch tanks can be found at several aquariums nowadays to provide the possibility of personal interaction for visitors. The argument could be made that by allowing countless individuals to touch these animals that it could cause them stress. However, most animals that are exposed to this experience are more resilient; brittle stars, sea urchins, sand dollars, and horseshoe crabs have tough, rigid exteriors that can tolerate being handled. In addition, these animals are cycled throughout the day in order to limit the amount of time they are exposed (Rowe and Kisiel 2012). In addition to the stress of being handled, zoos and aquariums are criticized for having their animals exposed to artificial lighting, loud or sudden noises, uncomfortable temperatures, modified feeding schedules, and a limited living area. What people fail to realize is that caretakers do not simply haphazardly assign animals to spaces and forget about them. Animal behaviors are studied and recorded in order to provide better care and maintenance for each animal and its habitat. Feeding schedules are developed specifically for animals with their health as a first priority (Morgan and Tromborg 2007). Yes, different locations have different sizes of tanks or enclosures with varying amounts of animals in each of them. What many people tend to focus on is overcrowding within one area or limited space for the larger animals (Heimlich et al. 2005). Sadly, in the United States, about 90% of aquariums and zoos have not been accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), meaning that they do not comply with the standards set by the accreditation commissioners (Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2010). The AZA has specific guidelines for all animals and the conditions that they should be kept in. there are approximately 2,100 aquariums and zoos in the US that are not AZA accredited. In many cases, there are financial limitations preventing expansion programs. Occasionally, these conditions can lead to animal conflict, or even deaths (Hutchins 2006), and standards that many would not consider suitable. The New Zealand National Aquarium houses a solitary Hawksbill sea turtle in a tank only seven times as long and two times as wide as it. He has been there for 27 years having being born in captivity. Not having been accredited by the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the standards of living for this poor animal are not nearly where they should be (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2005). While one can argue that the educational and conservation benefits of all aquariums and zoos, we cannot ignore that in some instances non-accredited aquariums may have been detrimental.

Pearson Education

Image 3: A condor gets released after rehabilitation. (Pearson Education)

At the same time, aquariums and zoos have great rehabilitation programs for animals, including seals, sea turtles, dolphins, frogs, birds, wolves, monkeys and many more, that work behind the scenes and out of the public eye. These programs have helped nurse countless animals back to health and have successfully returned them back to their homes in the wild (Image 3; Rakes et al. 1999). Breeding programs exist to replenish populations and keep endangered animals from becoming extinct (Hutchins et al. 2003). If it weren’t for the conservation programs affiliated with aquariums and zoos, many of these animals would continue to decrease in the wild. By having programs that inform the public about these issues, there is an increased awareness of these issues and that has lead people to be more proactive in these fields. (Gross 2015).

World Association of Zoos and Aquariums

One of the most prominent members of WAZA is America’s AZA. Established in 1924, AZA’s goals include conserving wild animals, reintroducing endangered species, and restoring habitats. The accreditation commission has strict guidelines for the species they house: each animal’s enclosure or tank must meet living conditions and dimensions that vary with size and amount of individuals. The association has Animal Care Manuals for each species that get updated regularly

One of the many Animal Care Manuals followed by the AZA

Image 4: One of the many Animal Care Manuals followed by the AZA. (Association of Zoos and Aquariums)

and must be followed in order to maintain accreditation (Image 4). For example, a zoo or aquarium cannot keep animals in captivity if they aren’t considered a good candidate (Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2010). The AZA SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction Program is focusing on the following ten endangered species with the goal of engaging the public to promote conservation: African penguins, Asian elephants, black rhinoceros, cheetahs, gorillas, sea turtles, sharks, vaquitas, Western pond turtles, and whooping cranes (Colbert 2016).

Currently, 233 zoos and aquariums have been accredited by AZA in the US. While a small victory, that is sadly only about 10% of all zoos and aquariums in the states. Nevertheless, these institutions hold 750,000 animals representing 6,000 species, of which 1,000 are endangered (Colbert 2016). These animals impact 180 million people annually. Each year, AZA provides $160 million to about 2,700 conservation projects in 115 countries over the world. Last year, they partnered with 575 nonprofit, government, and private organizations for these projects (Colbert 2016).

The AZA is one of 22 association members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Since 1946, WAZA has included several different associations all over the world that follow the same accreditation standards as those enforced by AZA. WAZA includes more than 330 zoos and aquariums over 50 countries. More than 700 million people visit their accredited facilities all over the world annually (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums 2005). Because of WAZA accredited zoos and aquariums, hundreds of thousands of animals are being properly cared for with appropriate living conditions; all over the world environmental education and conservation efforts are increasing. And that is amazing.


It would be misleading to characterize zoos and aquariums in either a fully positive or negative light. At an emotional level, many of us might want them to not exist and have all the animals be free to live their lives out in the wild. However, the sad truth is that many animals would not be able to survive in the wild without the chance they have had to grow as a population or the care that they are currently given in zoos and aquariums. While there can be no perfect harmony or solution, it appears that the best solution is to strive to have more facilities become accredited by WAZA.



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