When the Copenhagen Zoo euthanised a young giraffe and fed it to lions earlier this year, the zoo's scientific director Bengt Holst found himself at the centre of a worldwide controversy. But the public's outrage would have been better directed toward protecting endangered species instead of a single giraffe, said Holst this week, speaking to members of the press at the EuroScience Open Forum conference in Copenhagen, Denmark.

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A young giraffe at Copenhagen Zoo. The zoo came under fire in February for its decision to euthanise another young giraffe named Marcus. Image: Andrew Gray, Flickr

Giraffes are not threatened, Holst told the audience, and there was no place for the young giraffe in other zoos that are members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria. "It's so important that we don't just send the animals to strange places that don't cooperate under the same framework as we do," he said. "We need to take responsibility for our animals, to make sure that they live under proper conditions. And that when they’re going to breed, they breed with animals that will produce sound and healthy offspring and not inbred offspring."

"That's all coordinated based on scientific data," he added.

A far more serious problem in Holst's opinion is that zoos' conservation efforts are being hampered by delays and inefficiencies in implementing international legislation. For example, the Copenhagen Zoo is currently trying to send two young Amur leopards to the San Diego Zoo in the US as part of a global captive-breeding programme. Red tape surrounding US import regulations has delayed the process for nine months. "These animals get old," Holst said, explaining the urgency of the matter.

The subspecies is critically endangered – there are only about 30 Amur leopards in the wild and about 130 in captivity. For the breeding programme to be successful so that a reintroduction to the wild may one day be possible, zoos need to be able to exchange animals to avoid inbreeding. "[That's why] we need to address these legislative issues," Holst emphasised.

And many zoos could do even more for endangered species than they currently do, said biologist Dalia Conde of the University of Southern Denmark, also speaking at the conference. The roughly 800 zoos that contribute to the International Species Information System (a global database for the zoological community) hold one in seven of the planet's threatened animal species – and conservation biologists are pushing for them to take in even more. That means less space for animals like giraffes. "We need to be very open about how we manage this," Conde said. "Sometimes very hard decisions are taken." 

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Poison dart frogs at Copenhagen Zoo. Experts at the conference said zoos can do more to protect less charismatic species like amphibians and bats. Image: Mark Healey, Flickr

In particular, zoos can do more to protect less charismatic species like amphibians and bats. "We are now facing an amphibian crisis," said Conde. "Thirty percent of amphibian populations are threatened with extinction. This is unbelievable." The Copenhagen Zoo is among those helping to save such species by taking them into captivity, breeding them and even reintroducing them to the wild, she added. Still, most of the threatened species currently in zoos are mammals, and Conde believes zoos could do more. "Some zoos are doing their part, but I honestly think it is not enough." 

Zoos can also help scientists gather important data about the species they keep, like how long they live and how many offspring they have. "We cannot get [certain information from] the wild because it's difficult to get close to the animals in the wild. But we can get lots of data in the zoos, and based on that data we can make the right conservation plans," Holst said.

And the responsibilities don't end there. Zoos can play a key role in teaching the public and raising awareness about endangered species. When a "beautiful bat species that played a very important ecosystem role in Australia" went extinct a few years ago, the news hardly registered with the media, Conde points out. "The media and everybody are outraged about [one] giraffe, and [yet] we can lose a species and nobody says anything."

Some zoos are afraid to talk about negative issues like extinction, fearing that "people [will] leave the zoo depressed and won’t come back". But Conde argues that this is an important part of zoos' responsibility.

Holst agrees. "It’s so important that we tell the real story [of nature]," he said. "We should not tell the Disney story ... death is a natural consequence of life." The people of Copenhagen seem to agree: last month, the readers of a local newspaper named him Copenhagen's 'Person of the Year'.

Top header image: Andrew Belanger, Flickr