Scripta Varia

Zoos: Connecting People with Nature and Wellness Building

María Clara Domínguez Vernaza[*]

I live in one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet; our scientists have registered almost 63,000 species of life forms. We occupy the first place regarding the biodiversity of birds and orchids, the second place regarding plants, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish, the third regarding palms and reptiles and the fourth regarding the diversity of mammals.[2] In addition to this extraordinary biodiversity, more than 48 million people (75% of them living in cities)[3] comprising 87 different ethnic groups live in Colombia;[4] and we conserve 68 different living languages.[5] Colombia has two coasts on two oceans, the Atlantic and the Pacific, three Andean mountain ranges (west, central and eastern) cross it from south to north and tropical forests such as the Amazon and the biogeographic Choco, in which the rainiest place on earth ever registered is located. But, besides being a country where life flows in every corner, Colombia is also a country marked by 70 years of socio-environmental conflicts, related to the access, use and control of land and its resources, conflicts generated by drug trafficking, political violence, corruption, wildlife trafficking, and illegal mining. In those 70 years of conflict, Colombia has lost territory, has lost society and has lost biodiversity.

Colombia is part of the Global South, the most recent denomination that international cooperation agencies use to refer to nations formerly known as developing countries, third-world countries or underdeveloped countries and that were mostly colonies of what is now considered the Global North. As in other countries of the Global South, in Colombia the contemporary challenges of humanity are faced with creativity and innovation, with a unique way of seeing the world, forged in the heat of multiple conflicts and contradictions.

An invitation to rethink the role of zoos and aquariums

In the last 100 years, humanity has grown exponentially, and more than 70% of the people live in urban areas. The result is that today we have a planet with many people and a lack of citizenship. The global model is based on the perpetual growth, but the problem is not just that we grow, but how we grow. The current global growth model is based on three assumptions that affect the sustainability of the planet: produce more than what it requires, consume more than what it needs, and accumulated more than what it can to enjoy.

From our perspective, conservation is a social agreement to guarantee the conditions that make life possible in a specific territory. Consequently, the role of zoos, botanical gardens and natural history museums goes well beyond spreading knowledge about plants, animals or the natural world. We need these institutions to find their role within the social agreement we call conservation.

Today our society needs us to contribute to citizenship education, to the transformation of specific cultural practices related to forms and models of consumption, to the construction of local identities and to the engagement of citizens who understand the natural world in which they live. We are called to become welfare promoters for both humans’ communities and wildlife. Our role is not to sell tickets to see animals. Our “Role” is to be platforms for people to create experiences that they never forget, that transform their lives such that they decide to assume sustainable life practices based on respect for life in all its dimensions.

Today, zoos, aquariums and natural history museums have become unique platforms for contact with natural and cultural heritage and the understanding of issues that affect the sustainability of the planet.

Thereby, zoos and aquariums have three big advantages that put them in a unique situation: First, they are mostly NGOs, but also belong to a productive sector. Second, they can influence the consumption habits of millions of people who visit them each year and who represents 10% of the entire world population. Third, they can influence decision makers, promote solid alliances with authorities, political and scientific leaders and conservation NGOs, positioning issues of interest for sustainability and the transformation of the society-nature relationship as part of the public opinion.

The contribution to society does neither depend on the money that organizations have, nor on their size, nor on the number of animals or plants that are under their care; it depends fundamentally on the purposes of their actions, the coherence of their management and the integration with the community to which they belong.

Zoos and aquariums as wellness promoters

Organizations such as zoos, aquariums and natural history museums constitute a powerful engine to forge new values in local societies. The road to sustainability implies acting to stop the “vortex” of the infinite growth, excessive accumulation and assumed happiness based on consumption. Procuring the wellbeing for human communities, wildlife and ecosystems, implies a development based on the principle of equity and the reduction of inequalities.

Facing inequalities implies to propose and promote a new culture of consumption, of technology and reasoning in current societies, where development is no longer measured by the quantity of wealth generated and accumulated, but by the wellbeing that it provides to society and the ecosystems that sustain different life expressions on the planet.

We need more critical societies that question their lifestyle and development model, more creative societies capable of inventing new possible futures for life on this planet, and more careful societies that reward collective achievements over personal successes, capable to reach agreements to face and overcome inequalities and inequities.

Zoos and aquariums are called to be powerful leaders and society allies for the reduction of inequalities. Each institution must be concerned with identifying, knowing and understanding the critical issues related to the generation of inequalities in the local society, in order to articulate actions aimed to confront and reduce these inequalities: Facilitating access to parks for vulnerable populations, taking care of a better education for all sectors of the population, promoting respect and conservation of natural and cultural heritage as a collective good, making alliances with NGOs and government agencies to increase the positive impact of your actions.

Responsible for caring and fostering welfare of wildlife, which is part of the collective natural heritage, zoological institutions must be organizations characterized by a transparent management systems that demonstrates an intelligent use of institutional resources and the commitment to the fulfillment – without exceptions – of human rights, environmental, laboral and tax laws, and other rules related to taxation and the protection of social funds in each country. In so doing, they must, in addition, ensure the promotion of values related to the care and appropriate use of public heritage in terms of collective wellbeing, thus seeking an equitable articulation of the society and nature interest.

Many of the traditional approaches to nature conservation have had adverse effects on vulnerable populations, limiting their access to biological resources and services that the ecosystems provide and that they need for their sustenance. All conservation programs should be an opportunity to rebuild the relationship between society and nature, promoting better practices in local communities and helping to ensure the conditions and circumstances that make life viable in a territory. Conservation programs should establish mechanisms to confront and transform the unequal distribution of space, resources, and power; moreover, they should determine indicators measuring social equity-building and thus provide evidence on how the costs and benefits of conservation are shared in a fair and equitable way, in accordance with socioeconomic, gender, ethnic and generational considerations.

Zoos and aquariums must add to the IUCN guidelines expressed in the “Policy on Social Equity in Conservation and Sustainable Use of Natural Resources”,[6] that promote fighting poverty through undertaking conservation actions. IUCN recognizes the important role of conservation organizations for poverty reduction and identifies the need to prioritize the relationship between development and the conservation of biodiversity in the bilateral agendas, thereby inviting all organizations concerned with environmental issues to commit to joint actions to foster poverty reduction, sustainable development, the improvement of the quality of life of populations and the conservation of biodiversity, thus considering that social equity cannot exist without the promotion and protection of human rights.

The nature of the fauna populations that we host makes us centers of knowledge dissemination regarding “diversity”. The varied characteristics of our visitors, their different ages and interests, give us the chance of meeting territories of “diversity”. Our organizational structures and forms of management should also reflect that “diversity” is a highly appreciated value. We must actively work to build healthy organizations that are promoters of wellbeing. Internal relations based on good treatment, non-discrimination and equal opportunities are necessarily reflected in better practices of animal care, a more enjoyable experience for visitors, and sound attention paid to suppliers as well as further benefits in other areas that constitute the organization. In addition, the diversity of thought in the workplace promotes innovation and the social, environmental and economic profitability of the organization.

Key actors in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals

The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) actively works to promote the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as guidelines for the management of zoological institutions. The SDGs are a shared, inclusive, and global agenda which seeks to safeguard that nobody is left behind. They constitute a universal call for measures to end poverty, to protect the planet and to ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. The SDGs carry a spirit of collaboration and pragmatism to choose the best options in order to improve life in a sustainable way. They provide clear guidelines and goals for their adoption by all countries, organizations and people, in accordance with their own priorities and the environmental world challenges.

Three levels of commitment are proposed, each one incorporating the previous ones:

Level I: To disseminate and communicate, inviting and motivating citizens to take action. Considering that zoos and aquariums are visited by all types of audiences, they constitute an extraordinary scenario to raise awareness of the SDGs, related accomplishments, ways of supporting the causes and, of course, highlighting the connection between the SDGs and conservation.

Level II: Sustainability and corporate social responsibility. Incorporating SDGs within the strategic direction. Around the world, companies of different sizes, strengths and financial capacities are aware of the need to make their operation sustainable, of the opportunities presented in this changing scenario for the development of new ways of doing business; in this way, they make explicit their commitment to the SDGs, generating value for their consumers and customers and including it in their management and corporate impact reports. Zoos and aquariums, considered as businesses, can do the same. This level II is where the “sustainability” of the operation is located, in terms of being friendly to the environment (energy use, water management, waste management, use of plastics, etc.). Zoos and Aquariums are obliged, for the sake of coherence, to manage and minimize their negative impact on their environment.

Level III: To be living examples of sustainable development. This level means going beyond telling others to do something (Level I), allocating resources to support initiatives of other organizations and thus not negatively impact the environment (Level II); it is about incorporating the SDGs into their own agenda and identity. It is the highest level of coherence, bringing the yearnings of the 17 Goals and the general idea of sustainable development to the daily operation in the zoo or aquarium. The challenge is that each of the decisions, policies, and values can explicitly connect with the SDGs, so that there is gender equity, transparency, justice, peace, health, promotion of education, prosperity, etc.

In conclusion, it is pertinent to highlight that we can all contribute to the SDGs and there is only one way to do it right. Everyone must do it according to their conditions, restrictions, possibilities and interests. No zoo or aquarium in the world should “be left behind” in the implementation of the SDGs. The relationships between the SDGs and the conservation of species and habitats must be made explicit. Global South institutions must demonstrate an adequate and important participation in this process. Each institution should establish its own path based on an analysis of its context, circumstances, needs, and opportunities. Each institution must analyze the SDGs and establish the structure of relationships deemed most relevant to their current situation and their longing for the future. It is not possible to account for all SDGs in the same way or intensity; however, given their interrelation, working directly on implementing one of them can have an impact on the others.

As Mae West said: “You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”.[7]



[*] B.Sc., Fundación Zoológica de Cali, Colombia.
[2] These numbers are shared on the official website of SiB Colombia, the national network of open data on biodiversity. The report and its reference sources are available online (last accessed on October 31, 2019).
[3] Official DANE (statistical national department in Colombia) estimation from its 2018 national census. Available online (last accessed on October 31, 2019).
[4] Official DANE (statistical national department in Colombia) information from last public report on ethnic groups from its 2005 national census. Available online (last accessed on October 31, 2019).
[5] Official Colombian Culture Ministry report for its native languages protection strategy. Available online (last accessed on October 31, 2019).
[6] This policy was adopted at the IUCN Council Meeting in February 2000. The statement is available online at (last accessed on October 18, 2019).
[7] Although Mae West – renowned American actress between 1920s and 40s – popularized this and other aphorisms, it is a variation from the popular saying you only live once.




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