Have we reached Peak Zoo?

A visit to Land of the Lions shows how our relation to captive animals is changing.

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Zoological director David Fields towers over the visitors at London Zoo’s latest exhibit: the immersive, Indian-themed Land of the Lions. Even on this grey March morning, it’s clear he couldn’t be prouder of his new Pride Rock.

But as Disney’s Mufasa might put it, methods of zoological display “rise and fall like the sun”. With evermore digital forms of entertainment competing for our attention, are we approaching Peak Zoo?

This £5.2m creation is big and bright (we're talking orange and pink Bollywood-bright), and designed to “future proof” London Zoo’s care of big cats. Enlarged pens, new planting, and holes through which the lions poke their tails to give blood samples all help to provide "a level of welfare that I think surpasses other zoos", Field says.

Such boasts come only a week after SeaWorld announced the end of its orca-captivity program – a big win for those long opposed to captive breeding programmes.

In response to these criticisms, conscientious zoos now subscribe to the "arc paradigm". This concedes the need to create more animal-focused enclosures, support the work of in-country rangers, and take a harsh line against organisations which exploit exotic animals for profit. It also contends, however, that certain species should be safe-guarded in captivity until their homes have been made sustainable. "There are 500 Asian lions left in an area about the size of Greater London” Field explains, “one massive forest fire, one serious disease could wipe out that population – really, really wipe it out.”

Genetic management (through cross-breeding wild and captive populations) may seem like applying a sticking plaster to the gaping wound of habitat degradation, but it seems to be a necessary resort. Twenty-five captive-bred Scimitar Horned Oryx have just been reintroduced into their natural habitat in Chad, after being classified “Extinct in the Wild” for over fifteen years.

Yet reassuring the public about welfare and ethics are only half of David Field's concerns. Keeping visitors' attention piqued once they are through the gate is an equal challenge: “The biggest problem in conservation is people. And unless we can get people to value biodiversity then it’s a major, major battle.”

Total attendance at UK zoos and aquariums has climbed from 18 million to 22 million over the last five years, but so have costs and competition from theme parks, games consoles, and smartphones. The modern urban world may be encroaching on wild habitats, but it's putting pressure on traditional zoological ones too.

Field admits he is "something of a dinosaur" with regard to entertainment technology. In fact, he'd like zoos to be mobile-free zones, especially around the gorillas, whose natural habitat is threatened by the mining of smartphone metals. "What I love about the lions is that everybody has put their phones down, they’ve taken off this cloak of electronic gadgetry, because there’s a lion this close to you and its roaring at you, and it’s making some connection with you, and those are the moments that are going to switch people on – back on – to nature."

His reverence for close encounters with the massive, the exotic, and the dangerous has deep roots. Zoos developed independently in different cultures across the world – answering a lust for prestige as much as curiosity. The first lions at London Zoo arrived from the royal menagerie, and during the war Churchill made regular visits to Rota, an Asiatic lioness gifted to him from a Rotaprint salesman.

Now, with our increasingly urban lifestyles, even interactions with smaller or domesticated animals can make a big impact on kids. The new children's farm at Whipsnade, and "In-with-the..." lemur and spider walk-through exhibits at London Zoo have all gone down a treat. "People in the end spend as much time looking at our spiders as they do our tigers", Field says.

Yet it's always going to be harder to engage with the bigger beasties. The lion enclosure’s new design tries its hardest to get past the glass. And the emphasis on the tight-knit wild and human worlds of Sasan Gir - with monkeys housed in a replica train-station and a cafe selling "masala fries" - is laudable. But it's also no lion love-in.

British zoos' distaste for technology may thus be causing them to miss a useful trick, especially where the larger, less accessible, animals are concerned. Some foreign institutions have been quicker off the mark in this respect. A British design company, INDE, has already supplied the latest in augmented-reality exhibits to zoos and aquariums in Canada, Australia and China. At Philip Island Nature Park, these screen-based installations allows visitors to interact, in real-time, with virtual reproductions; they can get up-close, walk, dodge, duck their through the penguin colony, even on days that the birds themselves decide to take a break.

Company founder Alex Poulson, describes the current technology as a “supplement” to the traditional zoo experience, not a replacement. Though in forty years time, he predicts, as hologram expertise continues to develop, it may be very hard to tell the difference.

While it doesn’t seem like big mammals will be leaving zoos, or at least some form of specialist breeding programs, anytime soon, their reign as the kings of captive conservation may be coming to an end. For British zoos to continue turning the world “on” to nature, they may be advised to show how technology is now as much a part of nature as we are.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.