Scripta Varia

Zoos mobilising the public for legislative change

Theo B. Pagel[*]


In his Laudato si’, Pope Francis (2015) mentions that:

The earth’s resources are also being plundered because of short-sighted approaches to the economy, commerce and production. The loss of forests and woodlands entails the loss of species which may constitute extremely important resources in the future, not only for food but also for curing disease and other uses. ….. It is not enough, however, to think of different species merely as potential “resources” to be exploited, while overlooking the fact that they have value in themselves. Each year sees the disappearance of thousands of plant and animal species which we will never know, which our children will never see, because they have been lost forever. The great majority become extinct for reasons related to human activity. …..We have no such right. (p. 24-25)

Unfortunately, this is true and I/we – the zoo community – fully agree with this statement. Most of the problems nature is facing are created by humans. Therefore, we need to act – it is our responsibility.

Modern zoological gardens and aquariums have changed over the last decades. Although still today some people see our institutions mainly as leisure attractions, zoological gardens and aquariums were able to position themselves as sites of conservation learning, conservation action and research (Pagel & Spiess, 2011; Pagel, 2012; Pagel, 2016).

As President-elect of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) and zoo director/CEO of the Cologne Zoo (Germany), I am absolutely convinced that scientifically run zoos are on the right track (WAZA, 2005; WAZA, 2009). Yet there is still potential for further improvement. Besides the knowledge about keeping and breeding wild animal species and conservation education (Dick & Gusset, 2010; Gusset & Dick, 2010), our visitors – society as a whole – are our real potential. Therefore, the title of this chapter “Zoos mobilizing the public for legislative change” is not only a headline but also a main goal of our institutions. With a mantle of economic and public accountability, zoos and aquariums need to not only understand and promote conservation learning but also to work on changes to the legislation and the behavior of people.

Research suggests that however strongly individuals pursue sustainable lifestyles, the overall indicator of whether or not a sustainability initiative will be effective is the involvement of the government. Since the first Earth Summit in Stockholm in 1972, it has been apparent that the largest challenges, namely those involving over-intensive human exploitation of nature, must be addressed through the interaction of governments. We should remember that conflict related to sustainability was (and remains) too large an issue for individual member states to handle. The Earth Summit was therefore a platform for member states to collaborate.

Governments are most often motivated to act in concert when requested to do so by those they govern, that is (in high-consuming industrialized nations), the society or people in general and their voters in particular – all of whom are also our visitors. Zoos and zoo associations, like the Association of Zoological Gardens (Verband der Zoologischen Gärten, VdZ), the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA) or the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA), should therefore, besides talking to politicians and civil servants, not be afraid to form a part of the environmental lobby, and should motivate their visitors to demand action! This is and can be done by education, lobbying, involvement of the public, and campaigning.


As modern zoos and aquariums increasingly see themselves as centers of education and conservation (Miller et al., 2004), their mission is to be leaders in both areas. More and more zoos create exhibits in which education and conservation increasingly complement and reinforce each other (Rabb & Saunders, 2005; Fraser & Wharton, 2007). Two examples are: the Congo Gorilla Forest (Bronx Zoo, USA) and the Hippodom (Cologne Zoo, Germany). Visitors get information not only about animals but also about more general aspects of their habitats, such as their sustainable use, related cultural issues, human-animal conflicts, farming, ranching, etc. Often, in situ projects are linked to these kinds of exhibits.

In our institutions, we have two kinds of education: formal and informal. All signs and boards or zoo guide booklets in the zoos are part of our informal education. Some of us have even written books about zoos and their work (Pagel et al., 2010; Pagel, 2015).

A lot of us have zoo schools, teachers, volunteers and/or keepers who inform the visitors about the animals and their needs. At the Cologne Zoo, we have 11 teachers, who come from different school systems and take care of roughly 23,000 young people per year – we could potentially serve three times this number but do not have enough staff. Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) in Germany is a clear task for the education sector (Lucker, 2008). On June 20, 2017, the National Platform on ESD adopted the National Action Plan for the Global Action Programme (GAP) implementation. It defines 130 objectives and over 300 measures to scale up ESD in all areas and at all levels of the German education system (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, 2017). As this is a public responsibility of the member states, we should try to make much more use out of it.

Here I would like to mention briefly the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG)[2] adopted by all United Nations (UN) Member States in 2015. These are also increasingly part of our education. The SDGs address the global challenges we face. This includes those related to poverty, inequality, prosperity, peace and justice but also climate and environmental degradation. Once more, these 17 SDGs are an urgent call for action by all countries – in a global partnership. We need to jointly work against climate change and preserve our oceans and forests.

Beside the kindergarten and the school sector, my curators and I also teach at the University of Cologne, we are part of a biodiversity course on the higher vertebrates and run a zoo biology course on our grounds. Many other zoos and aquariums are undertaking similar actions of involvement in formal education.

Our advantage is our animals. People are connected to nature and are normally interested in nature. Nevertheless, the world is changing and therefore we must try to maintain the interest of the people. We need to sensitize them better to get them enthusiastic about animals, and we can achieve this goal only if our visitors really enjoy the stay in our zoo and fall in love with the animals they see. Baba Dioum, a Senegalese forestry engineer, presented a paper in New Delhi in 1968 at the triennial meeting of the General Assembly of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN). There he made the following statement: “In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught.” In a way that means we love only what we know and save only what we love – therefore we have to bring people together with nature – especially in our changing and increasingly urbanized and technological world. Therefore, zoo animals, museum exhibits and plants are the tools which can lead people to change their lifestyle and behavior.


For several decades, zoological gardens and aquariums have lobbied at governmental and intergovernmental forums on behalf of nature. We do this in concert with other organizations – at all levels from local government to continental and global forums. Our mandate for this comes from public campaigns as described in the following subchapter.

Another resource of zoos is our expertise concerning the threats different species face. Our collaboration with organizations like TRAFFIC, WWF or governmental organizations is already bearing initial fruit. For example, tiger geckos (Goniurosaurus) in Vietnam could be one of the next species driven into extinction by illegal wildlife trade. Therefore, the Cologne Zoo and its partners have proposed that these species be listed by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). These Asian lizards are particularly vulnerable to extinction due to their extremely restricted habitats and over-collection for the international market. Studies of a Vietnamese-German research team, led by Hai Ngoc Ngo of the Vietnam National Museum of Nature in Hanoi and comprising staff of the Cologne Zoo, have provided an overview of domestic and international trade of Goniurosaurus, with the main focus on species native to Vietnam. Because of these data, we are now able to apply for listing these reptiles.

This is very important because currently only eight tiger geckos have a species conservation status assessment for the IUCN Red List. All of them were classified either as vulnerable, endangered or critically endangered, but none is currently listed by CITES, which is the only efficient and reliable method of monitoring and regulating the trade of the species on a global scale. The listing of all tiger gecko species from China and Vietnam in CITES Appendix II was proposed jointly by the European Union, China, and Vietnam in 2018.

The Cologne Zoo has already been successful in having another species be included in the listing: the crocodile lizard (Shinisaurus crocodilurus), a species for which we have established a breeding and introduction program in Vietnam and just recently had the first youngsters at our Zoo in Cologne (van Schingen et al., 2016).

Another example for lobbying is palm oil. Palm oil can be found in a wide range of products from makeup to pet food. The rising concern is that its current production methods often destroy the areas where the plants are harvested. Therefore, WAZA has become an official member of the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) at the 72nd WAZA Annual Conference in Berlin, emphasizing its commitment to sustainable solutions that protect the environment. RSPO currently has more than 4,000 members in 92 countries (WAZA, 2018). Being a part of WAZA, we are now able to vote on behalf of the world’s leading zoos and aquariums on issues central to RSPO such as deforestation and conservation – we are an active partner. The world zoo and aquarium community is one of the leading groups of conservation funding compared to the other major international conservation organizations. Through our members, who may sell products including sustainable palm oil, WAZA is also able to engage directly with the manufacturers or suppliers. By only selling sustainable palm oil products in our institutions, we can influence the market (Pearson et al., 2014). Our community has the power to change things. In other words: There is no better ambassador than the orangutan…

The use of other sustainability labels, for example the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) or the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), is also an option for influencing the market and thus the behavior of our visitors. At the Cologne Zoo, not only guests in the restaurant are served MSC fish – no, all our fish-eaters such as pelicans or California sea lions are also offered this kind of food!


How can we turn our communities into activists for nature protection? Involvement of the public in specific tasks such as beach-cleaning, forest restoration, etc. that foster an affinity for nature and illustrate the necessity of nature protection firsthand are some of the tools we have as zoos and aquariums. Many zoos have active children’s/youth groups as well as other volunteers who are interested in such work.

We need to reach out to the young people. One example is the Green Teen Team (GTT). This organization was founded in 2014 by H.S.H. Princess Theodora von Liechtenstein who is not only the founder but also an active participant in the running of the foundation’s projects. GTT believes that everyone can make changes in their lives to help save the planet’s biodiversity – even or especially children. The homepage of GTT states:

Therefore the objective is to empower young people to be able to make changes to their lives, the lives of others and the life of the planet. The world’s environment is changing before our eyes and even in our short lifetimes. Only a hundred years ago people would not believe that the changes we see now would even happen. All kinds of harmful things have led to our planet reacting negatively, from changes in weather patterns and ocean currents to global warming. … GTT’s aims and objectives go towards helping regenerate the planet’s biodiversity through engaging young people in conservation projects and educational workshops and summer camps across the globe. GTT is building an active, global community of environmentally engaged teenagers and young people, in a bid to create positive change at grassroots level. (GTT, 2019)

WAZA will try to cooperate with GTT in future to get the youth of the planet interested, activated and engaged in conservation.


Zoos around the globe run campaigns to serve as a megaphone of conservation and to encourage the public to take active steps. EAZA has been doing this for almost two decades. Unfortunately, there has never been a greater need for effective conservation of our natural world than today. We must demonstrate the value of conservation – to conserve biodiversity by clarifying its meaning for endangered species and the wider global context. Therefore, EAZA runs these campaigns to raise awareness of and funds for major conservation issues.

Table 7.1 shows what has been achieved in the years of campaigning. The Members of EAZA really made a difference for the protection of biodiversity in many parts of the world. To sum up their impact:

·    More than €5 million were raised for conservation projects around the world.

·    More than 140 conservation projects have received grants.

·    New links have been established between EAZA and other conservation organizations, and between EAZA member institutions and individual conservation projects.

·    Hundreds of millions of zoo and aquarium visitors have been informed about the importance of biodiversity conservation.

Ape conservation specifically was supported by the Bushmeat campaign (2000-2001) and the Ape Campaign (2010-2011). The first ever EAZA campaign raised the issue of the unsustainable and illegal hunting and trade of threatened wildlife – in particular the great apes. The main aims of the campaign were:

·    To raise awareness concerning the impact that the hunting for wild meat has on great apes in Africa,

·    To gather signatures for a petition urging leaders both in Europe and in Africa to address the crisis,

·    And to raise funds to support great ape conservation projects.

The campaign resulted in one of the largest petitions ever submitted to the European Parliament, with 1.9 million (!) signatures. In our EAZA report you can read:

As a result of this petition and the debates it initiated, in 2004 the Parliament adopted a report that recognized the issue of bushmeat as important in relation to wildlife conservation, human food security and livelihoods, and human health. The impact of bush meat has now been included as one of the factors to be considered in assessing applications for EU funding. Considerable support in achieving this result came from the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

The EAZA Bushmeat Campaign, and in particular the adoption of the parliamentary resolution, played a key role in the granting of €3.4 million to UNEP-GRASP (Great Ape Survival Project). This ambitious project aims to lift the threat of extinction for great apes through intergovernmental dialogue and policy making, conservation planning initiatives, technical and scientific support to range state governments, and to raise fund and awareness in donor countries. (EAZA, 2010, p. 1)

In the end, several projects were funded such as the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance, research into chimpanzees and gorillas in the Dja Faunal Reserve in Cameroon, and the Berggorilla & Regenwald Direkthilfe (B&RD) in DRC, which focuses on the survival of gorilla populations that are at risk.

The second Ape Campaign aimed to make a significant and lasting contribution to the continued survival of apes (great apes and gibbons) and their habitats. Another €580,000 were collected for great ape conservation projects.

Until now, the EAZA Ape Conservation Fund has supported 19 ape projects worldwide with a total of €426,531. Apart from supported gibbon and orangutan projects in Asia, chimpanzee projects in Africa, several gorilla projects in Cameroon, Congo, Nigeria, and the Central African Republic received significant funding.

These conservation funds are separate to the funding provided separately by EAZA Members, who contributed just under €26 million and 70,000 staff hours to field conservation projects in 2017 (EAZA, 2019a). It is worth remembering that the campaigns, while providing a lower level of funding for conservation, have aims and targets that do not relate directly to funding – as mentioned above, these include public education and mobilization, and lobbying by the zoo community as a united front.


A survey conducted by WAZA, in collaboration with national and regional associations, showed that annually more than 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums worldwide (Gusset & Dick, 2011). On the one hand, this figure may include multiple individual visits; on the other hand, this is most certainly an underestimate (WAZA, 2009) as still today new zoos and aquariums are established all around the globe. This number of visitors is probably unparalleled by any other group of conservation-oriented institutions. Gusset and Dick therefore state “The large number of visitors received and amount of conservation money spent suggest that the world zoo and aquarium community has the potential to play an important role in both environmental education and wildlife conservation” (2011, p. 568 cf. Dick & Gusset, 2010; cf. Zimmermann et al., 2007).

Moreover, zoos and aquariums attract a large variety of people. Humans, by nature, are interested in nature. These hundreds of millions of visits give zoos and aquariums significant influence, opportunity and responsibility, and because scientifically run zoological gardens are organized on a national, continental, and global level we, the Members and our associations, have the opportunity and the ability to improve our impact on mobilizing the public for legislative change.

The zoo and aquarium community reportedly spent about US$350 million on wildlife conservation alone in 2008 (Gusset & Dick, 2011). Certainly, this figure was actually much higher as only about the half of the association Members submitted data. North America and Europe were the leading areas in spending money for conservation, but the other regions are moving in the same direction. The world zoo and aquarium community is one of the leading groups of conservation funding compared to the other major international conservation organizations.

Especially WAZA as well as the regional associations and their Members want to make a difference. Therefore, we intensively need to cooperate also with other partners such as the Botanical Gardens, Universities, NGOs, politicians, and all other players in this field. One goal WAZA has in mind is a World Species Congress. The IUCN and others have been thinking about it for years. What we want, in contrast to other political conferences, is to really make a difference. Therefore, we propose the creation of a movement that mobilizes the younger generation and uses their channels, such as social media, to strengthen our influence on society in terms of raising awareness of sustainable living and how it can be adopted by both individuals and by societies as a whole. This could be similar to what is happening in Germany at the moment with the Friday demonstrations, in which pupils demonstrate against climate change. However, we must focus on achieving an actual outcome.

We (WAZA and its members) want to make a difference.

Finally, I would like to share with you the words of a former colleague who said: “If zoos did not exist today, we would have to invent them now!” As Pope Francis (2015) said in his Laudato si’:

We cannot fail to praise the commitment of international agencies and civil society organizations which draw public attention to these issues and offer critical cooperation, employing legitimate means of pressure, to ensure that each government carries out its proper and inalienable responsibility to preserve its country’s environment and natural resources, without capitulating to spurious local or international interests.


I would like to thank Mr. David Williams-Mitchell from EAZA office for sharing the EAZA data with me, and my zoo educator Mrs. Ruth Dieckmann, my marketing officer Mr. Christoph Schütt and Mrs. Maerte Siemen, my secretary, for useful advice and support.


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[*] Zoo Director and CEO of Cologne Zoo, Germany, as well as President-elect of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA).




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