/ 9 November 2023

The vital role of zoos in the 21st century

Elephants At Joburg Zoo.
Zoos are crucial spaces for conservation and involving people in nature. (Photo by Derek Davey)


In South Africa, urbanisation rapidly transforms cityscapes, making green spaces increasingly critical for sustainable urban living. In this sense, zoos are not just aesthetic additions but functional assets that combat pollution, improve air quality, and offer educational and recreational opportunities. Urban green spaces like zoos become vital in preserving a semblance of biodiversity within the city limits and educating the public about conservation.

Zoos represent more than just leisure; they are vital green spaces, conservation educators, and tourism hotspots. They are the green hearts (and lungs) of cities and urban recreation spots, offering an affordable, accessible, and first-hand nature-based experience for all city dwellers. For families and individuals alike, zoos represent a unique opportunity to be exposed to wildlife and conservation awareness initiatives. From a tourism perspective, zoos are cornerstones. 

Both domestically and internationally, they have the potential to draw visitors seeking a blend of education, conservation, and recreation. Zoos offer a universal appeal, crossing cultural and language barriers with the universal language of nature’s marvels.

The importance of zoos extends to their role in reducing inequalities, one of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. They provide a more affordable option for experiencing wildlife, which is particularly significant for low- to middle-income families. 

Zoos democratise access to natural beauty and education, ensuring that wildlife encounters are not exclusive to those who can afford safaris or distant travel to, for example, national parks.

In a world where biodiversity is vanishing at an alarming rate, zoos have emerged as critical havens for wildlife conservation and education. As the planet faces unprecedented environmental challenges, these institutions are bastions of hope and learning. 

Beyond the thrill of encountering wildlife, zoos play a multifaceted role that is vital for both ecological and educational purposes. Entertainment and education are not mutually exclusive in modern zoological parks. They intertwine to create experiences that captivate the imagination while simultaneously instilling a deeper understanding of the natural world.

This combination is pivotal in a society where connecting with nature is increasingly mediated through such institutions. Zoos act as a bridge between humans and nature, and even more so for urbanites. 

By bringing people face-to-face with wildlife, they foster a connection that can inspire a lifetime of conservation advocacy. 

The very experience of seeing and learning about unique and endangered wildlife can transform the casual observer into a conservationist. The power of these encounters is amplified by educational initiatives that help visitors understand the complex ecosystems these animals inhabit and the threats they face.

But education must move beyond merely providing information. It must engage and inspire. Zoos have made strides in offering entertainment that captivates visitors but the educational aspect must evolve to meet the growing need for more reflective, effective learning experiences. 

Interpretative services, the informative heartbeats of zoos, must not only present facts but also tell compelling stories of conservation, survival, and coexistence. 

Interpretation in zoos serves a dual purpose. It enriches the visitor’s experience, making their day enjoyable and memorable. More importantly, it must cultivate an understanding of the intricate balance of biodiversity and the human activities that threaten it. 

Effective interpretation can lead to a profound behavioural and attitudinal change, fostering a generation of visitors who are informed and motivated to act in favour of conservation.

Critically, the conservation role of zoos cannot be overstated. Many species owe their survival to captive breeding programmes that zoos have meticulously developed. These initiatives provide a lifeline for endangered species, offering a chance for repopulation and genetic diversity. Zoos also contribute to conservation efforts in natural habitats, funding and conducting field research and restoration projects. 

In this light, it is evident that zoos must continue to evolve their educational offerings, ensuring that they keep pace with the needs and expectations of their visitors. While the enjoyment of the zoo experience is paramount, it should always be closely aligned with education that engages and empowers. 

Visitors should leave not only with memories but with a new perspective on their relationship with nature and a renewed commitment to its preservation.

Our latest research from the tourism research unit, Tourism Research in Economic Environs and Society at the North-West University, focusing on the Johannesburg Zoo, uncovered significant links between the zoo experience and visitors’ intentions to participate in conservation efforts.

The findings highlighted that visitor satisfaction, education quality, and overall zoo experience directly influence the willingness to advocate for and support conservation. The research suggested that by tapping into the edutainment aspect, zoos can not only satisfy the escapism motive of visitors but also subtly push them towards a conservationist mindset.

As zoos continue to prioritise animal welfare and education on conservation status, they can reaffirm their crucial role as both research centres and recreational spaces, with implications extending beyond the zoo gates to urban tourism and green space management. Getting back to nature was also fuelled by the pandemic, and as more people reside in cities, it is essential to have access to green recreational spaces. 

The contemporary zoo is not just a refuge for animals but a hub for education and tourism and a catalyst for conservation action. In ensuring their educational services are as robust and engaging as their exhibits, zoos can fulfil their mission to entertain, enlighten, and inspire stewardship of the natural world. 

As the planet’s wild places and wildlife face increasing threats, the role of zoos is more critical than ever — they are not just showcases of biodiversity but active participants in the fight to save it.