Elephants to beetles: zoo collections matter for conservation

Engagement with animals can have positive effects for survival and recovery of species

Prince Tom's record in the European Asian elephant stud book states he died in 1882, that he killed one person and his skeleton can now be seen in the Zoological Museum at Trinity College Dublin. The incredible story of Prince Tom's life is barely captured by these bald data points.

As a youngster Prince Tom was gifted to Prince Alfred, son of the British Queen Victoria, and his trip to Dublin Zoo was a long and winding one via Nepal, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and the UK. His story of alcoholism, poor diet and pestering by overenthusiastic New Zealand children is far cry from how Asian elephants are kept these days. Indeed, Dublin Zoo is internationally recognised as a source of expertise in elephant care.

People flock to see animals they would never, or rarely, get a chance to see in the wild. Zoos have multiple roles in entertainment, education, conservation and research. The collection of animals that a zoo decides to keep reflects a tension between those different roles. PhD student Andrew Mooney recently explored how the numbers and types of animals a zoo keeps in their collection determines how many people visit the zoo and whether this influences the conservation work a zoo supports in the wild.

So if you were playing a zoo-simulation game how should you optimise your zoo collection for maximum visitor attendance and maximum conservation gains? The answer is not simple as there are important constraints on the collection a zoo can keep. If you decide to populate your zoo collection with large animals you will quickly run out of space and will not be able to have very many of them.


If you choose the usual suspects, elephants, giraffes and lions, you will be very similar to other competing zoos. These trade-offs open the door to alternative collection strategies – zoos with many, small and unusual creatures. How about a beetle zoo with enormous rhinoceros beetles, glittering jewel beetles, hard-working dung beetles and the charismatic lady beetles (which are neither bugs nor birds!)?

Big data

Stud books are kept by animal breeders for animals such as horses and dogs; they are also kept by zoos to document and manage animals in their collections. The hand-written zoo stud books of days gone by have now become "big data". Stud book managers share information across institutions, and the data has been compiled into large electronic databases such as Species360.

Data from more than 470,000 animals from 4,800 species kept in 458 zoos worldwide showed that zoos with many animals, big animals, a higher number of species of mammals in particular, and which are dissimilar to other zoos attract more visitors. These characteristics of the animals in the zoo matter for visitor numbers just as much as being in a highly populated city location or in a wealthy country.

This information is useful for zoos which rely on visitor numbers for revenue, but does having more visitors translate through to more conservation action in the wild? Does a zoo collection optimised for entertainment miss the mark on its conservation role? This study showed that the more visitors a zoo gets the higher its contributions to conservation projects in the wild, so it is a win-win for visitors and conservation.

Zoos contribute to conservation both through their work with threatened species within their own walls but also through conservation in the wild, often linked to the species they keep. The global zoo and aquarium community is reported to be the third largest conservation organisation contributor globally, funded to a large extent by paying visitors. Strengthening the connection between revenue from visitors and conservation in the wild has the potential to greatly increase the conservation potential of zoos.

Prince Tom’s story and the great improvements in animal care in zoos since Victorian times remind us that animal welfare is critical to the success of modern zoos. Zoos engage people with animals and this engagement, along with the revenue it generates, can have positive effects for the survival and recovery of animal populations in the wild.

Yvonne Buckley is an ecologist and professor of zoology at Trinity College Dublin