New book explores stories of hope and despair in global biodiversity crisis
The last known male northern white rhinoceros is dead.
Sudan was a captive rhino that lived at a zoo in Czechia for 34 years before being moved to the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya, where he died in March of this year, apparently from complications related to old age. When Sudan was just 2 years old, he was captured along with five other white rhinos and spent the rest of his life in confinement.
After their subspecies was declared extinct in the wild, Sudan and three other northern white rhinos were relocated to the conservancy with hopes that a breeding program would be more successful in a more "natural" environment. It was not.
Humans are causing potentially irreversible harm to wild animal species and their habitats. Due to habitat damage and fragmentation, poaching and pollution, scores of wild species and ecosystems around the world are threatened; many are on the brink of extinction.
At the same time, zoos find themselves on the front lines of conservation — trying to figure out what their role is in tackling this global biodiversity crisis.
In his new book titled “The Ark and Beyond: The Evolution of Zoo and Aquarium Conservation,” Arizona State University School of Life Sciences Professor Ben Minteer brings together an impressive roster of authors that collectively traces the history of zoos and aquariums and investigates their potential role as conservation organizations.
“Zoos have always been somewhat invested in conservation. As someone who works in the ethics and history of conservation, it’s interesting to find out where that came from, what explains this recent push in the zoo community toward conservation, and what they mean by it,” said Minteer. “As it turns out, they don’t all mean the same thing. I was particularly interested in the challenges of zoos making this push, and potentially the opportunities.”
Minteer has served as the Arizona Zoological Society Endowed Chair at Arizona State University for the past five years. He has recently been renewed in the position through 2023. Moving forward, he plans to develop several projects that build from the insights of “The Ark and Beyond,” including one exploring zoos and their relationships to the wild, and collaborative work with the Phoenix Zoo focused on conservation psychology and zoo visitor experience.
“There is definitely a shift in the community going on right now — not across the board,” said Minteer, “but among many leading zoos and aquariums. Although zoos have been making moves toward conservation for decades now, this commitment seems to be getting deeper and far more serious. The institution is changing, and the end result might be something quite different from the zoos of old.”
Minteer edited the book, along with ASU professors Jane Maienschein and James P. Collins. The book, published by the University of Chicago Press, features 30 chapters from four dozen authors including zoo and aquarium leaders, academic biologists, historians, ethicists and social scientists. Here, Minteer answers a few questions about the work.