The days when zoos were simply collections of caged animals maintained for public curiosity and entertainment are long past. Modern zoos play an important role in environmental protection, conservation and awareness. Zoos help endangered animals through breeding programs, education, professional training, habitat protection and scientific research. Through organisations like the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, as well as the United Nations Environment Program and the European Endangered Species Program, zoos are able to work cooperatively to help endangered animals.
Zoos help endangered animals through breeding programs that create and sustain genetically viable numbers of particular species. Describing their zoo's participation in cooperative European breeding programs, scientists at the Edinburgh Zoo explain that genetic diversity enables animal populations to hold onto the qualities that help them adapt and survive in the wild.
Around the world, zoos that exchange breeding animals and sperm develop specialist knowledge of particular species. In the UK, for example, Woburn Safari Park supports breeding programs for Eastern Mountain bongos. The National Zoo in Washington has successfully bred Sumatran tiger cubs, helping to boost a population that was once only about 700 in the world.
Zoos are now major scientific establishments, helping endangered species through research into every aspect of their life cycle, vulnerabilities, behaviours, diets and habitats. The San Diego Zoo's Institute for Conservation Research studies methods of African elephant conservation. The Wildlife Conservation Society's (WCS) Bronx Zoo monitors 350 species using high tech tools, population surveys and research cooperation with international partners, resulting in a continual flow of discoveries. Longleat Safari Park in England supports mountain gorilla and elephant conservation and monitoring in the wild.
Animal species that are otherwise successful can become endangered through the disappearance of their natural habitat. Although some endangered animals face a future only in captivity, zoo breeding programs aim to release animals back into the wild wherever possible. Because of this, a number of zoos work actively to conserve natural habitats and support ecologically viable landscapes and seascapes. The WCS has helped create more than 100 protected areas around the world. These range from Mongolian grasslands to coral reefs.
Zoos help endangered animals by educating the public about wild life protection and animal conservation. All the world's major zoos have education programs that teach children about animal behaviour and protection. The Bronx Zoo has an award-winning education department with programs to teach young children, teens, families and adults about wildlife and wild habitats. The WCS that operates the Bronx Zoo also runs an active program in New York's Central Park Zoo. There, the zoo’s Wildlife Theater Players use drama, puppetry, games and songs to inspire young audiences to protect the natural world.
The next generation of ecologists, conservationists and animal behaviourists--those who will help zoos protect endangered animals in the future--are getting their training in zoos right now. In January 2010, the National Zoo launched the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, dedicated to global conservation and the training of conservationists. The Zoological Society of London, which operates the London Zoo and Whipsnade Zoo, offers work experience programs for young people who want to work in conservation. In San Diego, Zoo InternQuest interns explore careers at the San Diego Zoo and the zoo's Institute for Conservation Research.