From Cells to Sanctuaries - How Zoos Are Rescuing Their Reputations; Zoos Claim Captive Creatures Are Part of Vital Conservation Work, Insisting Several Species Depend on Them for Their Survival. Mary Griffin Visits Twycross Zoo to Weigh Up Captivity versus Conservation

The Birmingham Post (England), August 23, 2012 | Go to article overview

From Cells to Sanctuaries - How Zoos Are Rescuing Their Reputations; Zoos Claim Captive Creatures Are Part of Vital Conservation Work, Insisting Several Species Depend on Them for Their Survival. Mary Griffin Visits Twycross Zoo to Weigh Up Captivity versus Conservation


Byline: Mary Griffin

he Amur leopard is being playful.

THe pads forward, eyeballing a little girl and it takes her breath away.

"Wow" she gasps. Only a few inches and a panel of glass separate the cat and the child as her five-year-old brother announces: "He's looking for a girlfriend."

He's right. The cat is Davidoff. He is also five and he's one of only 16 Amur leopards in the UK - and one of only 169 in captivity across the world. They are the most northerly leopards in the world, giving them a set of unique characteristics, including their long pale fur.

In the wild, just 45 of these cats survive, roaming the wilderness of far east Russia where they've been hit hard by poaching (of both the cats and their prey), logging and forest fires.

These critically endangered leopards were featured in a top ten list of species published recently, as the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) highlighted their conservation work by pinpointing those animals whose future is most reliant on zoos.

At Twycross, they hope to help the dwindling Amur leopard population by finding a mate for Davidoff, hoping that his cubs' cubs could one day be released into the wild from a purpose-built centre on the edge of the Russian habitat.

But re-introducing captive animals to the wild is a long, laborious and very costly process, says Neil Dorman, living collection curator at Twycross.

"Ten or 20 years ago, a zoo's reason for being was to breed animals for re-introduction to the wild," says Neil.

"That has changed lately. "The reason now is to maintain viable populations so that we have these viable populations to re-populate areas of the world if we need to."

Neil reckons the reputation of modern zoos suffers because of their arguably gloomy past.

He says: "Before the 1970s, zoos worked in isolation.

It was like a competition over who had the best animal collections and who had the most of what.

"In the '70s, they started to realise that for managing genetic purity and saving the species for the future a better concept was co-operative breeding programmes."

So Twycross now works with around 70 other European zoos, sharing stud books and breeding plans. But while the arduous procedure of releasing animals into the wild is rare, Neil is keen to stress the zoo's ongoing work to protect and restore habitats for animals that are already roaming free. He says: "A lot of the projects we support are not necessarily about animals we keep in the zoo. …

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From Cells to Sanctuaries - How Zoos Are Rescuing Their Reputations; Zoos Claim Captive Creatures Are Part of Vital Conservation Work, Insisting Several Species Depend on Them for Their Survival. Mary Griffin Visits Twycross Zoo to Weigh Up Captivity versus Conservation
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