Friday, 9 November 2007

Too Many Orang-utans

There are hundreds, if not thousands of orang-utans, gorillas, gibbons and other primates in rescue centres in Africa and Asia and elsewhere. There are so many that it is difficult to know what to do with them. Suggestions to release them back in the wild are given a luke-warm reception, at best, by conservationists. This is because releasing primates that have been in captivity back into the wild is fraught with problems, and can even have negative impacts. It is also rarely a cost effective method of conserving an endangered species -- spending the equivalent amount of money on conserving existing wild populations is invariably a far more cost effective way of helping a species.

But there is a huge welfare issue, with more and more of these animals accumulating, often in conditions that are not ideal. So what can be done with them? One thing I am fairly certain of, and that is that this is a welfare issue, not a conservation issue.

Meanwhile back in the northern hemisphere, zoos are struggling to breed orang-utans, gorillas and other primates, in order to create self sustaining populations, that do not create a drain on the wild -- often dressing it up as part of their conservation programmes.

Surely it would make sense for zoos to stop trying to breed orangs etc., and to put them on birth control pills, and to take in some of the hundreds of animals languishing in rescue centres? Or am I missing something? For someone who has spent a large part of his working life opposing the trade in wildlife, this is a pretty heretical concept. But when confronted with the sheer numbers of orangs in captivity, which still continue to grow, some radical rethinking is needed, which does not waste conservation money. Unfortunately, in the public's mind, separation is often very difficult indeed, and orangs are highly emotive. Hundreds of thousands of dollars are raised each year from a public who often mistakenly believe they are helping an endangered species survive. Those thousands of the dollars spent on rescue centres, would of course, if spent on conserving wild populations and their habitat have a much bigger impact.

But it would still leave a thousand or more orangs in captivity.


  1. You're right in that this is a welfare issue, but it's also an ethical one: Is it right to kill an abandoned Orang-utan with no chances of survival in the wild, if the alternative is spending money on its upkeep in captivity, even though it may have little chance of being successfully re-released? It boils down to ones opinions on animals' intrinsic right to life, and is of course a question that can be debated at length.

    I think your suggestion that zoos should take these abandoned animals in is an excellent one, as it seems to me ridiculous to breed animals in zoos that can also be found in large numbers in rescue centres around the world. (And zoos often end up with more offspring than then "need" leading to the killing of these animals, or in some cases, as was suspected in Sweden recently, illegal release into the wild of the "excess"...)

    There would still be welfare issues of course (some zoos should no doubt be forced to close down) and it's also worth bearing in mind that some rescue centres exists to save animals from zoos from squalid conditions or death. In these cases, the animals are not meant to be released into the wild, just given the chance to live out their lives in peace, so again it's a question about whether we think animals have a right to live, even if requires money that could arguably be better spent saving animals and habitats in the wild.

    Personally I would like to see zoos taking a much bigger responsibility for their breeding of animals, with breeding programmes only taking place if it can be shown that the animals can be successfully re-released and *not* simply to create a yearly "come see our cuddly animal babies" attraction. But with the number of Orang-utan and other baby animals becoming orphaned and rescued, the zoos could in fact have their cake and eat it: If these animals were taken in they would still have their cuddly babies, without spending money on breeding. If they are willing to cooperate with the rescue centres, that is. Let's hope some of them read your blog post!

  2. I think this is a really valid concern, especially with the current crisis over available habitat for release (without which this argument would be easier to ignore).

    My personal opinion is that these animals cannot be abandoned, nor do I believe that zoos should be forced to cease conservation breeding programmes. I think the issue you raise, that zoos should take some of these animals in rather than breed in captivity, is a valid argument. The number of available 'spaces' for each species is limited in zoos and this is currently regulated by policies governing conservation breeding. However, your comments suggest that maybe it is time for zoos to reconsider their activities for conserving species.

    Zoos now consider themselves conservation organisations and as such should be constantly moving forward, striving to provide better protection and conservation for endangered species. Moving wild born animals into zoos is a highly controversial issue, but zoos shouldn't use this excuse to shy away from it - the issue of their existance is still considered pretty controversial by some.

    If we are really serious about protecting species from extinction -that, lets not forget, need protecting because of human activity- it could be time to begin a new era of species conservation.

    Maybe you have found the next natural step in the evolution of zoos?