Zoos and aquariums are very different today from the menageries of the past, and are continually evolving and improving. The World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) comprises over 400 leading zoos, aquariums and associations worldwide, and WAZA’s remit has grown to both address the ecological crises of today and fully maximise the conservation impact of its members.
Our members are increasingly becoming leaders in global issues such as climate change, plastic pollution, the illegal wildlife trade and sustainable palm oil. These institutions not only guard the long-term future of some of the earth’s most endangered species, but they also contribute significant resources towards conservation of wildlife and wild spaces. Zoos and aquariums are progressively becoming central to ensuring that the world’s biodiversity survives.
More than 700 million people visit zoos and aquariums each year, which means WAZA members are in a prime position to drive behaviour change through their visitors. From the importance of species conservation to reducing reliance on single-use plastics and unsustainably sourced palm oil, zoos and aquariums are not focused only on saving species, but are also encouraging people to take action in safeguarding the our planet.
Our commitment to modelling a sound change in behaviour resulted in WAZA signing a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with United Nations Environment in 2017, committing 50 per cent of the WAZA membership base to eliminate single-use plastic from their institutions and attractions by 2023.
In the same year, the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums also signed a second MoU, this time with the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), again committing 50 per cent of the WAZA membership to using only certified sustainable palm oil in consumer items and feedstocks by 2023.
RISING TIDE OF PLASTIC
The problem of plastic pollution truly came to the forefront in 2018 and was the main focus for World Environment Day and World Oceans Day.
Around 300 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced each year and around 10 per cent of this waste ends up in the oceans, which has a detrimental impact on marine wildlife and ecosystems.
Governments have started acting against the rising tide of plastic and WAZA members are getting involved. In addition to removing single-use plastics from their supply chains and grounds, zoos and aquariums are also communicating about the harmful effects of plastic and educating their visitors about sustainable alternatives.
In the US, Shedd Aquarium in Chicago launched a “Shedd the Straw” campaign. An audit showing that Americans use an estimated 500 million plastic drinking straws daily prompted Shedd Aquarium to target straws. The aquarium challenged the Chicagoland community and visitors to the aquarium to remove single-use plastic straws from their everyday life. The concept was simple and offered a few solutions to help consumers make the commitment, whether it was passing on the plastic straw provided in beverages or choosing a reusable or compostable alternative. Shedd also took the challenge to local restaurants and has so far managed to encourage more than 65 restaurants to get rid of plastic straws.
ACROSS THE POND
In Europe, Lisbon Aquarium in Portugal launched a national advertising campaign titled “If it doesn’t go in the bin, it goes in the sea”, helping to bring a new perspective to the importance of disposing of waste properly in order to reduce plastic pollution.
Elsewhere, WAZA members have implemented onsite plastic recycling units to encourage visitors to recycle plastic water bottles while others have stopped selling single-use plastic items entirely.
Some WAZA members have installed art exhibitions highlighting the issue of plastic waste, such as Vancouver Aquarium’s Vortex exhibition by Douglas Coupland. Vortex takes viewers on a journey to the heart of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, immersing people in the global plastic pollution crisis.
Our members’ work to protect the ocean extends beyond battling plastic pollution to encouraging sustainable seafood choices amongst consumers. Monterey Bay Aquarium in California launched its Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch programme to help consumers and businesses choose seafood fished or farmed in ways that support a healthy ocean. Since 1999 the programme has worked to raise public awareness about sustainable seafood choices. Today, Seafood Watch has more than 11,000 partner locations worldwide and more than 200 zoo, aquarium and non-profit partners promoting sustainable seafood.
IN YOUR HANDS
From sea to land, WAZA members are also challenging the palm oil crisis. Palm oil has become one of the world’s most widely used edible vegetable oils and is found in around 50 per cent of packaged products in supermarkets from foods such as biscuits and cakes to cosmetics and soaps. Demand for this oil is dramatically increasing due to its high productivity, efficiency and versatility, but unsustainable palm oil cultivation can cause extensive deforestation, affecting forests and wildlife. Certified sustainable palm oil helps reduce the negative impacts of palm oil cultivation on wildlife, the environment and local communities.
WAZA’s MoU with RSPO is the first coordinated global zoo and aquarium project addressing palm oil, but numerous WAZA members have conducted palm oil campaigns or education programmes in the past. Chester Zoo in the UK launched its Sustainable Palm Oil challenge in 2014, and is working with consumers, manufacturers, businesses and the palm oil industry to increase the demand for sustainable palm oil. It’s currently campaigning to make Chester the world’s first sustainable palm oil city.
In Australia, Melbourne Zoo has an interactive grocery store where “consumers” can scan everyday products and find out if good or bad palm oil has been used. They are given the option to send letters to the heads of corporations encouraging them to implement a more sustainable palm oil sourcing policy.
RECONNECTING WITH NATURE
Education plays an important role in the remit of zoos and aquariums, and WAZA members are working to connect children with wildlife and nature. In an increasingly digital world, screens are consuming our lives and we’re losing touch with the outside world. In response, WAZA’s Nature Connect programme was launched in 2017 to encourage and support our members to provide outdoor facilitated experiences that connect children and their families to nature, inspiring them to take action to conserve the natural world.
Funded by a Disney Conservation Fund grant and managed in collaboration with the International Zoo Educators Association, one component of the programme provides grants to members to provide a series of immersive, facilitated nature experiences for children and their families. Through the programme, zoos and aquariums are rekindling the relationship of children to nature and sparking a lifelong appreciation for biodiversity and its conservation for generations to come.