Forging Zoos into Global Conservation Centers

March 25, 2013

In an in-depth interview with Mongabay, WCS CEO Cristián Samper shares that childhood interactions with nature in Colombia prompted a career in conservation biology. After helming the Smithsonian's Museum of Natural History for nearly a decade, Samper joined WCS to help "foster solid conservation science and management."

Mongabay: The WCS is often billed as a benchmark or standard for growing partnerships between zoological facilities and direct field conservation works (in the case of the WCS, the Bronx Zoo and related NYC facilities). How do you feel that modern zoos can better connect the public with frontline conservation?

Cristián Samper:  I feel that zoos, aquariums, and facilities like the Smithsonian should offer the public a window into the wide and wonderful natural world that is really our shared heritage. It's an opportunity for most people who will never have the chance to go to the Congo, or to Himalayas, or the African Savannah's, etc., to come into contact with wild animals and by extension the entire ecosystems that these species represent. And that connection is so important, especially for people who live in large cities, which are increasingly disconnected from nature. Since we live in a planet that is becoming highly urbanized, I think zoos and aquariums help the public better understand the natural systems that make all life on this planet possible. And what people understand, hopefully, they will appreciate. And what they appreciate, hopefully, they will work to protect.

The ability to connect field conservation work and scientific research directly with the public is one of the main reasons that I was drawn to joining the WCS team. The WCS is one of the world's oldest environmental organizations, having been in operation for over 117 years. From the very beginning we have had the mandate of running facilities like the Bronx Zoo, while working to launch scientific expeditions around the globe. But we haven't always linked these two key activities together in eyes of the general public, though building that link is a true and lasting value. But we're now taking great efforts to connect both of these core activities with the public.

One of my favorite exhibits at the Bronx Zoo is the Congo Gorilla Forest Exhibit. It offers our visitors a feel of the Congo and the area's biodiversity richness. Through interactive, educational exhibits, it's a showcase for our field work projects that are working to save this truly magical place. Although I've built a career in biology, I had no idea of the unique and rare qualities of this far off place, until I visited a mini-version of this ecosystem that was built by our team, right here in the Bronx! This inspired my recent trip to the Congo and it sharpened my resolve to help both its wildlife and local people.


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