Advocating for the animals, leading conservation efforts by Toronto Zoo are having a global impact on species survival.
Zoos emerged out of humans’ fascination with animals. However, what began as a means of facilitating wild experiences, has become a profession instrumental in ensuring that the creatures we’re excited to see remain here for years to come.
Over the years, accredited zoos have evolved into conservation-based, accredited science-led organizations, largely focused on spearheading research aimed at improving preservation efforts in the wild. This includes breeding programs helping to repopulate endangered species and reintroducing animals into their natural habitats.
For almost 50 years, the Toronto Zoo has played a leading role in global conservation efforts that are dedicated to keeping these incredible animals and their wild counterparts from becoming extinct. While we spend our time at the zoo hoping to see animals in action, the exciting part is what’s going on behind the scenes.
Ensuring species’ survival
Habitat loss continues to be a primary driver of species decline, particularly for animals like Sumatran tigers, orangutans, and western lowland gorillas. Climate change continues to have an immense impact globally, and the palm oil industry remains one of the most critical threats to endangered species. Every day, hundreds of hectares of rainforest are logged for palm oil plantations, an oil found worldwide in many of the products we use. Species are forced to move, leading to fragmented populations. As a result of deforestation, animals have moved closer to people and poaching, human conflict, and disease are becoming increasingly common. Tigers, gorillas, and orangutans are just three species now considered critically endangered, which is when population growth no longer outpaces population decline.
Luckily for their wild relatives, the Toronto Zoo and the animals in their care play a critical role in helping to solve these issues.
Finding harmony with tigers
“Our animals are ambassadors for their wild counterparts,” says Sarah Stata, who works with Toronto Zoo’s two Sumatran tigers.
Big cats are synonymous with the Zoo, but with only 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, the future of this particular big cat remains critical. Over the last hundred years, 97 per cent of the tiger population has been lost, and like many other rainforest species, Sumatran tigers have felt the impacts of habitat loss and resulting fragmentation first-hand. Human-tiger conflict and retaliation killings have also increased tiger mortality.
Local farmers living on the edge of Gunung Leuser National Park — where 35% of the remaining Sumatran tiger population lives — are now forced to protect cattle from the encroaching carnivores, forced closer by deforestation.
The Toronto Zoo supports the Sumatran Ranger Project, a keeper-driven initiative to educate, empower and provide resources to communities to help protect their cattle and reduce retaliation killings. Each year, the project employs locals to build tiger-proof livestock corrals, not only offering farmers a safe space for their cattle but alternative livelihood options for those who may have otherwise looked to the palm oil industry for work. “It’s about educating youth in the local communities, teaching them about the wildlife and how important they are, since they are the future and will ultimately be the change” says Stata.
Re-establishing wild orangutan populations
The Sumatran orangutan has also experienced the results of human-driven habitat changes. “The Toronto Zoo is a part of the Orangutan Species Survival Plan (SSP),” says Maria Franke, Manager of Welfare Science for the Toronto Zoo. The mission of an Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) cooperatively managed SSP Program is to manage an ex situ species population with the interest and cooperation of AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, Certified Related Facilities (CRFs), and Sustainability Partners. “An SSP helps maintain a genetically healthy population over multiple generations, for the benefit of preserving the species, but also focusing on conservation. The Toronto Zoo has been hugely successful in breeding orangutans. We’ve had 13 offspring!”
Of course, species survival takes a village. “We have an endangered species reserve fund at the zoo that works to link zoo-based programs with conservation projects in the field,” says Franke. One of these projects is the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, which tackles everything from habitat protection to local population management and works directly with the Indonesian government to rescue animals taken into the illegal pet trade. A critical part of the work done by the organization includes reintroductions. Having rescued over 350 orangutans and completed 207 reintroductions, it’s establishing wild populations through these animals rescued. Over the next 10 years, the Toronto Zoo Wildlife Conservancy is continuing to support orangutans with $250,000, helping the program to continue with confidence in funding.
Giving gorillas a chance
This work isn’t restricted to Indonesia. Gorillas have been an integral part of the Toronto Zoo since 1974, with the original patriarch, Charles, still a vital member of the current breeding program. In the wild, gorillas face similar challenges to orangutans, and as their proximity to humans increases, they’ve been introduced to diseases against which they aren’t inoculated. “We want to keep gorillas with us, and right now, they’re still here, so we need to do whatever it takes to keep it that way,” says Sue Eberth, a Toronto Zoo keeper working with the gorillas. The zoo’s cell phone collection program uses proceeds from unwanted technology and reinvests them in programs focused on conservation, and earlier this year, the Toronto Zoo Wildlife Conservancy announced $200,000 in funding to Ape Action Africa over 10 years. Ape Action Africa works to save and care for orphaned gorillas. A Cameroonian organization, the non-profit was the first to successfully release a gorilla into the wild and continues to provide care to over 25 Western lowland gorillas over two decades later.
Leading the way
“Our niches are so fragile,” says Stata. These animals are vital to finding an equilibrium, and as Stata notes, what that collapse looks like could be devastating.
“We need to bring new voices and ensure that serving community and caring for the natural world for future generations is at the centre of all we do,” says Dolf DeJong, CEO of the Toronto Zoo. The work being done at the Toronto Zoo —from connecting people to species they have never seen before, providing funding to animal conservation organizations to sharing actions guests can take— has played a remarkable role in progressing the work of these organizations on the ground. “We’ve seen some great connections between our programming on conservation issues like unsustainable palm oil and electronics recycling,” Dolf notes.
This year alone, the Toronto Zoo has committed thousands of dollars to partner organizations, helping to provide these non-profits, traditionally reliant year-over-year on grant funding, with guaranteed resources to continue their work. “By working together, we can make a difference,” says Eberth. “No one wants a world without these animals.”