Using zoos to protect climate change threatened taxa and to understand species traits for wildlife tourism


Background: Modern zoos have multiple objectives including public recreation and education, and aiding ex situ species conservation; the latter being increasingly important. Currently, zoos host collections that combine attracting visitors with conserving threatened species. However, there is little consideration of species that are likely to become threatened in future. Ongoing and future climate change is a major threat that will produce new species of conservation concern, yet this is not currently considered. In addition, conservation in the wild is increasingly dependent upon wildlife tourism income, the drivers of which are not well understood.
Aims: Here we propose to address how climate change might impact on both in situ and ex situ species conservation, and to assess to what extent terrestrial species threatened by climate are overlooked in zoos currently. In addition, we will assess, though both field studies and in zoos, the primary drivers of species attractiveness to visitors in these different environments. Armed with such knowledge, we will produce information on: (a) species of climate threat that are not currently conserved in zoos; (b) the traits of species that make them attractive to wildlife or zoo tourism, and; (c) protected areas globally that are projected to lose wildlife tourism attractor species and identify areas where translocations could benefit long-term conservation goals.

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Image Captions

Jaguar and Chimpanzee – big cats and great apes are universally popular species with wildlife enthusiasts, both in zoos and in the wild.


Methods: Species modelling methods:
Ongoing work in Durham is predicting future range shifts of birds and mammals globally under climate and land-cover change scenarios, so we already have projections of range changes for birds and mammals (our two focal taxa) under future scenarios. These models will provide the basis for subsequent zoo, field and simulation research.
Zoo-focussed methods:
We will assess the attraction value of species to zoo visitors using several approaches. We will record visitor durations at exhibits in relation to species traits, their visibility and behaviour. This will combine the use of cameras to monitor the species and data collection by the student and volunteers/self-certification (we aim to develop a citizen science approach). We will also use people counters to monitor visitor traffic through exhibits. The resultant data will be used with species trait data to understand the drivers of attraction. We have already collated relevant traits data for most birds and mammals globally.
We will extract data from a global database of species in zoos, which we will compare to species that are currently threatened with extinction, or likely to be threatened in future. Such data will also permit an exploration of the typical species assemblages maintained at individual zoos (e.g. proportions of different taxa, easy/difficult to maintain species, functional types, attractive species, species of conservation concern). Armed with this knowledge, we will assess for the first time, the extent to which the world’s zoological collections are not protecting species threatened with future changes. We will use complementarity approaches (Margules & Pressey 2000) to simulate collections of species across the world’s zoos that would maximise the objectives of public recreation and education and ex situ conservation.
Field-based methods:
To complement the research above, the student will also spend time at two wildlife tourism hotspots in Africa (Kruger NP, SA & potentially Nairobi NP, KE), during which time they will record visitor stops at wildlife, and relate these to species and their behaviour, traits etc., in a similar manner to the zoo analyses. Such data on visitor preferences could be combined with travel and spend information to simulate future changes to visitors and therefore income streams from wildlife tourism globally.

Project Timeline

Year 1

Timetable of Activity: In year 1, the student will collate datasets on traits data and range change projections, roll-out zoo visitor censuses and collate global zoo collection data.

Year 2

In year 2, the student will continue this work and will undertake a first field campaign to study tourism preferences in the field.

Year 3

Year 3 will include a second field campaign, and projecting future changes to wildlife tourism and income, as well as simulating zoo assemblages to cope with future changes.

Year 3.5

The final six months of the project will be devoted to writing up the thesis, although it is anticipated that the student will produce chapters and submit manuscripts for publication during the full course of the PhD.

& Skills

Student Training: The student will receive training in key areas of contemporary ecology, including planning and executing field campaigns, collaborating with and delivering results to end-users, developing citizen science data collection and the application of models to address ecological questions. They will join the Conservation Ecology Group at Durham (, a dynamic team including a large cohort of postgraduate students. They will also work closely with staff at Chester Zoo, and with collaborators at African field sites.

References & further reading

Pacifici, M. et al. (2015) Assessing species vulnerability to climate change. Nature Climate Change, 5, 215-224;
Conde, D. A., et al. (2011) An emerging role of zoos to conserve biodiversity. Science, 331, 1390-1391;
Balmford, A., et al. (2015) Walk on the wild side: estimating the global magnitude of visits to protected areas. PLoS Biology, 13 (2): e1002074;
Balmford, A. (2000) Separating fact from artifact in analyses of zoo visitor preferences. Conservation Biology, 14, 1193-1195.

Further Information

Funded by NERC IAPETUS2 programme, this project is in competition with others for funding. Success will depend on the quality of applications received, relative to those for competing projects. If you are interested in applying, contact Prof Willis ( asap (and by 10th December at latest), with a CV and covering letter, The best applicants will be contacted and encouraged to apply online via attaching their CV, covering letter, 2 academic references, and evidence of previous academic qualifications. This scheme requires additional information uploaded, which Prof Willis will advise upon. Further details available at: &

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