Can zoo visitors save the natural world?

Exploring the potential of zoos across the world to deliver conservation goals by enabling their visitors to take action for nature.

In the south west of England lies the oldest zoo in the world that is not based in a capital city. Bristol Zoo Gardens opened to the public in 1836, and in that time has seen two world wars and many generations of zoo-goers.

Over the past 178 years, the global environment has changed significantly. Human activities have caused environmental destruction and countless species extinctions. At the same time, zoos have also changed significantly, moving from places to gaze at exotic animals to institutions that serve as leaders in conservation and education.

Research tells us that zoos are important for environmental learning. By exposing visitors to messages of conservation, zoos have an opportunity to influence attitudes about wildlife and their habitats. However, we cannot save wildlife by engaging people with the natural world alone. 

Research has found that influencing attitudes does not often translate into action; therefore, zoos must move beyond raising awareness and toward enabling visitors to take action for the benefit of the environment. The conservation sector at large has embraced the need for targeted, informed campaigns that encourage behavioural change. Principles of social marketing and psychology are being applied to investigate existing beliefs about wildlife-friendly behaviours and the barriers that prevent people from taking action.

Zoo-based conservation campaigns

By partnering with academics, Zoos Victoria in Australia designed a model for zoo-based conservation campaigns called Connect – Understand – Act. Using this model, Bristol Zoo Gardens launched its first targeted behaviour change campaign at Bristol Zoo in 2013.

One of the key attractions at Bristol Zoo is a group of western lowland gorillas. This sub-species is critically endangered due to habitat destruction, poaching, and disease; this called for a simple action that all visitors could make to help protect gorillas in the wild.

After surveying visitors to investigate perceptions of a number of threats to gorillas, Bristol Zoo Gardens teamed up with the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). Over the summer holidays, visitors to the Bristol Zoo were encouraged to purchase FSC-certified products from well-managed forests — in particular, charcoal for barbecues.

Part of this project was a survey to explore beliefs about, and barriers to, buying FSC-certified products. The survey found the following to be true:

    1. People could not recognise the FSC logo and did not know what it meant
    2. They did not think FSC products were widely available 
    3. They thought FSC products would cost a lot more than the alternatives

With these findings in mind, a campaign was designed around two elements: 1) a shopping game called ‘Zoopermarket’, which taught people about the FSC logo and demonstrated how to find FSC products, and 2) a pledging activity that encouraged people to make a pledge to choose FSC products on their next trip to the supermarket.

Evaluating impact

An important element in zoo-based conservation campaigns is evaluation. If zoos are to encourage pro-environmental behaviours among visitors then they must be able to effectively measure the impact of such campaigns.

In the project outlined above, it was determined that visitors reported significantly better logo recognition and an increased influence of the FSC logo on their purchasing decisions after their involvement with the campaign. Ideally, the survey would have measured actual behaviour change; however, this is challenging to prove, particularly using self-report surveys.

This year Bristol Zoo Gardens implemented its second campaign using a similar model, moving the focus from barbecues to kitchens. An FSC kitchen exhibit, set up within the zoo, called for visitors to swap their paper towels for an FSC-certified brand and use FSC-certified utensils. Over 12,000 people visited the exhibit and over 3,800 children and adults pledged to look for the FSC logo and buy FSC-certified products. The 2014 campaign is currently being evaluated.

Each year over 700 million people pass through the gates of zoos and aquariums in the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) network, so the potential to influence change through zoos huge. To achieve a sustainable future for people and wildlife, zoos must continue to improve their conservation campaigns to promote pro-environmental behaviour. If this is done, and done well, zoo visitors can save the natural world.

About the Author

Jennifer Garrett is Conservation Campaign Manager for Bristol Zoological Society.

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