Is Damian Aspinall a naive conservationist?

In case you don’t know who Damian Aspinall is, he is a casino owner and conservationist; not a combination you read every day.  He runs the Aspinall Foundation, a British charity that works to promote wildlife conservation.  He is most famous for a YouTube video in which he visited Gabon and tracked down a gorilla that he had raised and released.


I write this post because of an article that Damian penned in an English newspaper recently (you can read the article in full here) and I was so shocked by some of the points that he made that I couldn’t help attempting to write some form of rebuttal…

Disclaimer: For the moment, this article is opinion based.  I will ‘go away’ and try and check the specific facts mentioned in his original article so that I can write a more informed post at a later date.  I don’t proclaim to be a conservationist or have qualifications in this area but I do feel that I have enough intelligence to write a balanced argument about something I am so passionate about.

(Whenever I mention the word ‘zoo’, unless otherwise stated, I mean good zoos and animal/safari parks etc.)

Below I look at both the good and bad points Damian writes about in brief detail:

Most animals in zoos are not endangered

Damian writes that 75% of the animals that zoos house are not even endangered (though I don’t know yet where he found this information so can’t corroborate it at present) and if that’s true then yes, that’s an alarming figure and we should attempt to do what he suggests; over the next 20/30 years try and release all non-threatened animals so that zoos concentrate on the most fragile species and allow them more space individually.  As we move away, as a society, from seeing zoos as entertainers to places of conservation, it is more important than ever that we spread the right message and housing animals that aren’t endangered means that we are no different, as Damian writes, to the rich people that started zoos from their private collections over one hundred years ago.

The issue with the 75% is, what do you class as endangered?  Should we wait until every animal is classed as endangered by International Union for Conservation of Nature or should we help the threatened species that sit on the borderline?  Surely prevention is better than cure, particularly when some animals, such as the rhino, get killed more quickly by poachers in the wild than we could ever hope to replace at the same rate?

The main premise of Damian’s article is that animals, in particular big cats, suffer from ‘zoochosis’ meaning that they pace up and down through boredom and have a ‘vacant look in their eyes’ invariably because their enclosures are too small.  He may be suggesting that endangered cats be kept in larger enclosures or ‘free to roam’ in safari parks etc but ultimately you are still keeping them in an enclosure and therefore he appears to go against his very own ‘passionate plea’.  Unless you have an entire savannah under your control in the Western world, free of poachers, ultimately they will never have enough space although, obviously, the larger the enclosure the better. 

Zoos should have more transparency

In this point Damian argues that zoos need to be more upfront and honest both in their figures to do with breeding and admitting when they have made mistakes/are failing and I wholeheartedly agree; honesty is the best policy especially when it comes to something as important as attempting to prevent a species from going extinct.  If a zoo has tried a certain regime or enclosure for an animal and its caused an injury or death because of it for example then yes, zoos need to admit their failings and state that they will improve.  A mistake is forgiven far easier than a lie.  Zoos should be there for the animals first and foremost and if a zoo is doing something that goes against the ether of help then they should be held accountable for that.  However, as Damian states, currently zoos don’t have anyone that plays this role and therefore, you have to put a lot of trust in these places and sadly, that trust can sometimes be misplaced.  I would be very interested to read about the Aspinall Foundation’s figures from every angle to see if they are as transparent as Mr Aspinall would like us all to be.

I’m unsure where he gets the claim that animals who don’t need to breed anymore get put on the contraceptive pill; if that’s true then that’s definitely a practice I would question.  That, in my opinion, is taking the ‘power of God’ to an entirely different level.  However, I don’t yet know enough about breeding practices in zoos to make a full comment though it’s definitely something I’m now interested in looking at in further detail.  I believe zoos ultimately should be a ‘helping hand’ for animals but putting them on contraception seems a step too far.

Breed to release

Damian writes that the Aspinall Foundation has released more captive animals into the wild than ‘any other organisation in the world’ and if that’s true then that’s an incredible achievement and their conservational model should be used to teach other organisations globally; I would be fascinated to learn more about their foundation and their breed to release programme.  I absolutely agree that we should aim, in principle, to release as many animals as possible to keep the wild population growing naturally.  The more we intervene with animals, in whatever format, the higher the risk that they become reliant on us to help them so if we can provide a safe environment to nurture young creatures before releasing them into their natural habitat then I think we must do everything we can to make that possible.  However, this is also a very simplistic and idealistic point of view for reasons that will become apparent below.  He makes an admiral point and whilst I absolutely applaud his ability to breed for release, there are two issues we face as detailed above.  The first is that you can’t guarantee an animals’ safety and the second being that new-born animals are incredible crowd-pullers which means more than usual money coming in.  Right now, the female panda in Edinburgh Zoo is said to be pregnant.  If she is and has a healthy baby, the tourism, for both the zoo and Scotland itself will be astronomical.  It’s a sad fact but as much as we love animals we love baby animals even more.


Damian makes a good point that there is no need for animal shows; something which is a hot topic right now with the recent release of the documentary Blackfish the Movie (about the cover-up in SeaWorld with its captive killer whales).  He argues that these shows are not in the best interest of the animals’ mental wellbeing?  However, I can’t help but feel he is being naive; many animals have an extremely high level of intellect and energy and without these ‘shows’ they can become ‘grumpy’ for want of a better word.  Think of it like this: some breeds of dog are known for being unruly and hyper if they are not given the right stimuli and therefore many of these dogs get entered into huge shows such as Crufts because they need training, an outlet for their energy and the use of their intelligence to keep them happy.  Sea Lions for example are known to be incredibly intelligent and need stimuli not just from each other but with ‘toys’ and ‘playtime’ so whether the show was there for the public or privately once a zoo had closed of a day, they would still need to have fun.  The only difference being that making the shows public enthrals young children (and adults alike) and will therefore likely make them dig a little deeper into their pockets.

Zoos are built for the public not the animals

Damian argues that enclosures are built for the general public and not for the animal but I can’t help but feel that this is an exceptionally one-dimensional point of view.  If you visit a good zoo they will spend a vast amount of money every year on research and in particular ‘enrichment’.  This means that, with a more scientific approach, they look into how to make the animal happy in its enclosure.  This includes everything from how they should build the enclosure initially to which ‘toys’ to include.  A snake is not kept in a pen full of hay just as an elephant is not placed into a glass enclosure.  Hundreds of thousands of pounds go into ‘happy animals’ annually.  Zoos recognise that they are NOT where animals should be (all (good) zoos would ideally like their animals to be wild) but they realise that that is an entirely idealistic way of looking at the problem and therefore accept the situation and try and make the animals as content as they can possibly be in their environment.  He argues that in these ‘public built’ enclosures that there is no privacy for the animals either from the public or each other (in the case of a conflict between two animals for example and them needing a ‘time out’ after) but enclosures can be quite large and allow enough space under (or up) a tree etc to allow each animal to calm down.  You can’t tarnish all zoos with the same brush.  No, some enclosures aren’t built fantastically but neither do I believe that zoos, when building these enclosures, don’t consider the most minute of details in ensuring their animals are as at ease at possible.  Ultimately, however, whether it is a zoo or an animal park in the countryside, we want to be able to have a very high chance of seeing the animals because…

what funds zoos?  People.  Ultimately, WE help the survival of a species just by buying a ticket (Damian states himself that the general public’s ticket prices go towards the upkeep of animals in his wildlife parks) and so yes, to a certain extent, an enclosure does have to be built for the general public.  After all, who is going to pay to visit a zoo if they don’t have a chance of seeing the animals?  We want to be able to take photos of the incredible creatures that we see and show friends and family; photos are the new spoken word.  So do I agree that enclosures are built for the general public only?  No but we are taken into consideration and that’s exactly how it should be.

If a zoo can’t show the public their animals, how do we ever have a chance of inspiring younger generations to be the next conservationists?  A good zoo wants to educate the public and inspire entire generations to become the new zoologists, marine biologists and veterinarians but you can’t do that unless a child looks into the eyes of an Asiatic lion and is rendered speechless by the majestic creature or falls in love with a gangly new-born giraffe.  We can’t afford to be naïve here.  If we can’t see the animals, we aren’t going to care about the plaque on the side of the enclosure telling us how endangered the species is.

The Aspinall Foundation has acres of land at its disposal and therefore the animals that they keep have vast expanses to walk around and I agree that in an ideal world, there would be no ‘urban zoos’ and instead you would have safari parks and nature reserves but it’s an idealistic point of view sadly.  I completely understand his point of view but I also think it’s far more complicated than he implies.  There are not always huge expanses of land next to each other to purchase or the price could be too much for charities etc; there are a whole host of reasons that there are more urban zoos in comparison to ‘country’ ones.  Do I think Damian’s wrong?  Absolutely not; if I had the money, I would buy field after field as opposed to building after building but ultimately, if an urban zoo has a decent amount of space for an animal, should they not take them in?  After all, it would mean another one animal from a species is likely saved from extinction.  If, for example, we could buy huge stretches of water in rivers and seas to protect endangered marine animals whilst still allowing the public to view the creatures, we would but sadly, due to much red-tape and health and safety in the world, this dream seems less and less likely to come true and so, we have to help as best we can.


Money spent on zoos could be spent at the source

According to the article, he states approximately £1.73 million has been spent (again, I don’t know where this figure came from so can’t corroborate it at present) in around Europe on zoos and parks improving their establishments which, in my mind, means that zoos are investing more time and money into looking after their animals and caring for their emotional needs.  Yes, if you pooled a lot of money together you could build an amazing nature reserve in India to help the tigers or a protected area for Orangutans in Bornea.  But you know what you’re not going to buy with that amount of money?  A guarantee of the animals’ safety.  That money isn’t going to stop a billion-dollar company from continuing with its deforestation plan and it won’t stop a man spending an exorbitant amount of money on a team of poachers to kill a tiger for its blood and fur.

The Aspinall Foundation has, undoubtedly, had a great amount of success in releasing gorillas into the wild but, for lack of great detail in this one post, a gorillas biggest threat in certain parts of the world is deforestation and if you send them to an area in the world where that threat is minimum then the chance of success is high.  If, however, you breed rhinos or elephants to send to an African reserve where they face a constant threat of being killed both from poachers, the chance of their success is desperately poor.

And let’s not be ignorant here either; many zoos around the world not only help themselves with their money but have connections with other zoos or even lead their own field projects on a smaller scale to help animals across the world.  No, these projects aren’t the size of a charity that £1.73 million could buy but that doesn’t mean that they’re not continuing to help the fight for endangered species.  More money does not necessarily mean more lives saved.  There are some incredible ‘grass-roots’ conservation projects going on around the world that get hardly any publicity but continue, every day, to fight for the rights and wellbeing of the chosen animal.  I agree with Damian that zoos should continue to help conservation projects around the world (be it their own projects or someone else’s) but if you look into it, most zoos invest a great deal of money and resources both locally, nationally and internationally. 

Damian argues that zoos should be taxed a levy of 10-15% to reinvest into in-situ projects and whilst I think the principle of it is admirable, meaning that it forces some of the lower standard zoos to continue with conservation instead of keeping profit etc, sadly not every establishment can afford a tax like that.  Most zoos and parks are, like the Aspinall Foundation, a charity meaning that they rely heavily on the public to keep them going and I fear that with a mandatory tax not all establishments would survive which would ultimately have a detrimental effect on their ability to continue to save animals.  

The real fight for species’ survival will be won or lost in the wild

Surely a conservationist can’t be this naïve?  If you send a group of tigers into the wild, their survival will be lost before you can even keep track of whose body they just found in a snare.  HUMANS, not nature, have caused the tiger population in the wild to decrease by 97% (!!!!!!) in just over 100 years according to the WWF. That is NOT nature deciding the ‘survival of the fittest’, that is a human being.  Yes, if there were no threats to such animals around the world then by all means, I would say, to some extent, that if nature decides that it’s time for certain animals to be extinct then we shouldn’t fight it.  However, we are fighting to keep these animals alive because their constant threat of extinction is OUR fault.

It’s people still believing in mythology that Rhino horn will give them an erection or that shark fin soup is ‘good for the soul’.  If animals were like humans and were allowed to live a long life then yes, we shouldn’t fight their death because it’s obviously their ‘time’ but if you kill a rhino with a gun, that is nothing to do with evolution; just human greed.  You’ve only got to read the book Elephant Whisperer to understand just how much of a constant threat poachers are on an African game reserve; the problem can feel insurmountable.  Suggesting we ‘don’t help’ animals fight the course of ‘nature’ (aka humans killing them) is like saying we shouldn’t try and fight to keep a sick child live.  100 years ago, thousands more babies would have died in hospital than they do now; why?  Because knowledge and technology have advanced to a degree our ancestors could never have conceived.  If we have the ability to help a baby born with its heart on the outside of its body then shouldn’t we attempt it if we have the means and opportunity to do so and they are otherwise healthy?  You wouldn’t let the child die in an incubator knowing you had a good chance of helping them survive so why should be fight any less for animals?  And in contradictory terms, why does the Aspinall Foundation help fund field projects if Damian Aspinall himself believes that ‘survival will be won or lost in the wild’? 

We can experience wildlife on TV

Damian writes that we don’t need to go to zoos because we can experience it all on television.  My jaw literally dropped reading this!!

He states that it is ‘blatant nonsense’ that zoos ‘were there to encourage children to develop an interest in the natural world’ and that  ‘we manage to teach children about Greeks and Romans’ without seeing them but I think HIS point is blatant nonsense!  How many of you remembered facts about the Greeks and Romans after the topic had even ended, never mind leaving school?  And how many of you that were taught about Romans have gone on to learn Latin or become archaeologists?  Let’s not kid ourselves here. 

A 4 year old boy is not going to get a sense of how large an elephant is when he sees it on TV.  It will be in the zoo when he stands at the side of the enclosure with an 8 tonne bull gently sniffing the air around him.  He won’t understand on TV how a lion’s roar can literally make your heart vibrate when you hear it in the Namibian desert or that a gorilla gives her son a cuddle because she loves him just like the boy’s mum loves him.

I agree that animal documentaries are incredible these days with some amazing technology and cinematography being used to give the viewer as close and accurate a view into the animal kingdom as possible but let’s be honest, we all still want to go on safari or jungle expeditions because we know that as much as we are blown away by the things we see on TV, we all want to experience them in the real world and in their natural habitat. 

Manta Ray!!

I have spent years watching animal documentaries but there is NOTHING that comes close to the joy and passion for conservation I felt helping to a feed a baby elephant in Bali at a sanctuary or the tears I cried underwater when I came within inches of a 4.5ft manta ray gliding effortlessly towards me in the waters of Thailand.  Yes, you will stir some emotions when you show a ‘kill’ or natural death on a documentary but the real ‘pull of the heart strings’ happens when you see them face to face and look into the eyes of an elephant looking after her new born calf.

Commenters agreed

What I found equally saddening and frustrating with the article was just how many people agreed with many of the points that Damian had written.  At the time of publishing this post, the article on the Daily Mail has been shared approximately 1.3 THOUSAND times. People have left comments such as ‘zoos are prisons’ and ‘what a terrible life for these living beings’ only serving to prove that many of the public are seemingly ignorant and naive at the work that conservational zoos and parks partake in.

One person even said “What we need are more animal sanctuaries where the animals can roam completely free – unfenced – and these areas are patrolled by staff to hunt the poachers and keep these animals safe so they can breed in the hope that we cruel humans to not annihilate another species.” – how are you supposed to explain to people like this that even WITH staff to patrol the area, the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust  still predicts the extinction of wild elephants in 12 years because they are under constant attack from poachers in Kenya?  It’s exactly these type of people we should be educating and yet, with articles like the one from Damian Aspinall being published in national papers read internationally, I can’t help but feel a deep sense of regret that our naivety may cost the lives of many more species.


Damian Aspinall’s piece is either an incredibly badly edited or written article, I don’t know which, but given that I like to think of myself as a ‘conservationist from the heart’, I was astounded by many of Damian Aspinall’s seemingly generic and naïve points of view and worried that someone so famous could spread such a dangerous and ill-informed message to the general public.  Whilst I do agree with some of the points he makes, I think the finished article needed far greater detail or you risk, as has happened, giving the public only a one-sided story when there are many more viewpoints to see it from.  Maybe I have read his points out of context or maybe I have read them perfectly, I’m not sure but you can’t fail to notice that some of his points do have a huge question mark above them.


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  1. “we don’t need to go to zoos because we can experience it all on television” ? We can experience a lot of things on TV. But the real thing is always better. Plus Zoos are fun.

  2. Mark Hutchinson

    I’m going to read in short bursts and comment as I go. On the point of ‘zoochosis’ Damian is right. Paignton zoo has a pityful big cat enclosures and would undoubtedly be better in a larger area.

    I don’t think he does disprove himself because Damian plainly states that the countryside space he has in his two Safari Parks isn’t enough but it’s an improvement on an urban zoo. That’s fair enough isn’t it?

    Nice going so far. The important thing is through your blog we’re talking about conservation. More later.

  3. Mark Hutchinson

    I like the idea of not keeping non endangered animals in zoos to concentrate on the endangered ones. It’s easy to pluck figures out of the air, but I would suggest that in this country zoos do concentrate most on species in decline or losing habitat. Even the monkeys we see are usually threatened and not just random monkeys. Nice idea though in general and perhaps that was the aim of this article, to generalise after all it was in the Daily Mail.

    As for transparency I would think most UK zoos are. Although they have to be entertaining that entrance fee pays for research. No nice fluffy baby panda – no research!

    Perhaps we should take a lead from Chinese zoos, get the zoo keepers dog and tell everyone it’s an endangered lion;)

    I wonder, with regard to performing animals, he surely means do not capture wild animals and train them to entertain us at all rather than capture intelligent animals and leave their brains to rot from boredom?

  4. I really don’t know much about conservation, but a friend of mine is a conservationist and I have talked to her about zoos a lot. I agree with the idea of not keeping non endangered animals in zoos to concentrate on the endangered ones. I think it is kind of cruel keeping animals in small enclosures. I wouldn’t want to be stuck in a one room flat all my life when I am used to open savannahs in Africa for example.

  5. We shouldn’t have zoos in the first place. Poor caged animals.

  6. Shaun – In an ideal world, no we shouldn’t have zoos but in reality, we do need good ones to help conserve the animals the poachers are killing!