British zoos are starving to death – and the most historic of all may be about to slip away

The Zoological Society of London’s work has saved species across the globe. Now, amidst the footfall famine of the pandemic – and an uncertain post-lockdown future – it’s the zoo that needs saving.

By Simon Ingram
Published 22 May 2020, 20:23 BST, Updated 26 Nov 2020, 12:16 GMT
A gorilla watches from its enclosure at ZSL London Zoo. Coronavirus closures have placed zoos like ...

A gorilla watches from its enclosure at ZSL London Zoo. Coronavirus closures have placed zoos like ZSL under extreme financial pressure – and as summer approaches and lockdown continues, time and money is running out.

Photograph by Loop Images Ltd, Alamy

Since this article was published, zoos – including ZSL London Zoo and Whipsnade – have reopened. However due to the lengthy closure and continuing COVID-19 safety measures, most are still operating under reduced capacity and income, and are in need of support. The below video was produced by ZSL to highlight the threats still faced by the organisation. 


In the economic catastrophe of COVID-19, large, illustrious organisations are a long way from what many would consider a needful recipient of aid. But the plight of one in particular has highlighted that, for a certain kind of place, closing the doors to the public isn’t just costly – it’s a catastrophe. And it's one from which there may be no going back.

It this scenario that The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) – the world’s oldest scientific zoo, and one of international importance in conservation research – hoped it would never have to face. Thanks to coronavirus, the permanent reality is mere weeks away.

“ZSL – whose income relies on zoo visitors - finds itself in an unthinkable position,” wrote Director General Dominic Jermey in a blog posted on May 7th  – describing what he called an ‘existential challenge.’

Despite garden centres and schools beginning to tentatively reopen, as of May 22 zoos and other outdoor ticketed venues remain closed until further notice. And visitor cash for the upkeep of animals is only the most immediate need. 

“Many assume a venerable institution like ZSL London Zoo receives regular government funding in the same way Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum do,” He wrote. “But that is not the case. ZSL’s world-leading science and conservation work is underpinned by the money we earn, with every penny put into achieving our vision of a world where wildlife thrives.” 

Efforts to secure loans to assist the zoo have so far failed. A public appeal is now active, aiming to raise the necessary capital to keep the zoo’s work operational – and its animals fed and healthy while the pandemic lockdown continues.

Zoos and aquariums, it seems, are overlooked amongst the many victims of COVID-19. And if the UK's lockdown continues for much longer, many fear the results could be devastating not only for their inhabitants – but the critical work scientific zoos such as ZSL do beyond their walls.

“ZSL is an international charity that puts conservation science into practice to solve the major challenges facing the natural world,” says Andrew Terry, Director of Conservation and Policy at ZSL. He adds the zoos  “are absolutely fundamental to both our ability to engage the public, deliver hands-on conservation and provide core income.”

A wide footprint

ZSL’s work has relied on public funding since the outset. Founded in 1826, the society established London Zoo in Regent’s Park initially for scientific study exclusively; it was over twenty years later before the public was admitted (without a note of authorisation from a fellow, that is) to help fund its work. In the century-and-a-half since, it’s provided the inspiration for Winnie the Pooh, given a young naturalist named Charles Darwin the opportunity to ponder orangutans whilst writing On The Origin of Species, and was once home to a 6-tonne elephant whose name spawned the use of the word ‘jumbo’ as a descriptor.

An Asian elephant in an enclosure at Whipsnade Zoo. Opening in 1931, it is the UK's biggest zoo – and part of ZSL.

Photograph by Amanda Rose, Alamy

Its closure on 21 March is only the second significant spell since its inception; the first was for the Blitz in 1940 for a two week period – after which the zoo was urged to reopen to boost national morale. A second site at Whipsnade in Bedfordshire was opened in 1931, and is today the UK’s largest zoo.

“ZSL basically comprises two zoos, a conservation organisation, and a research institute,” says Mike Hoffmann, ZSL’s Head of Global Conservation Programs. “As a conservation organisation, we deliver projects in many countries around the world and in the UK, ranging from work in protected areas to reintroductions of extinct in the wild species. As a research organisation, we pioneer innovative research on wildlife health, recovery of small populations, approaches to wildlife monitoring, and many other fields.”

An 1854 survey of the Regent's Park zoo in 1854. First opened for scientific research – and orchestrated by Sir Thomas Raffles, who founded Singapore – twenty years after its inception, paying visitors were allowed in.

Photograph by Creative Commons

The modern London Zoo still occupies its original site in Regent's Park, just north of Central London.

Photograph by Commission Air, Alamy

Work by ZSL with various partners has helped return extinct or threatened species to their former habitats, such as the scimitar-horned oryx in Chad, Arabian and sand gazelles into Saudi Arabia’s empty quarter and – closer to home – released over 1,000 corncrakes to the RSPB Nene Washes in England to help arrest a global decline.

Their work towards protected land has also included the consecration of 127 square kilometres of tiger habitat in Nepal’s Parsa National Park, and supported the creation of 40 Marine Protected Areas in the Philippines. Initiatives from ZSL also spearheaded the installation of 300 drinking fountains throughout the UK – ‘removing 4.3 million single use plastic bottles from circulation,’ says Mike Hoffmann – and collected 252 metric tonnes of discarded fishing line to turn into carpet tiles.

National Geographic photographer Joel Sartore photographed several species of critically endangered amphibians and reptiles at London Zoo as part of the Photo Ark. This project, that aims to document every species living in the world’s zoos and wildlife sanctuaries, recently photographed its 10,000th species.

In 2017 National Geographic and ZSL launched the Photo Ark EDGE fellowships – equipping early-career researchers working on the front-lines of species conservation with key skills, including communication, to raise awareness. 

“Nobody teaches you how to become a conservationist. Most of us learned from scratch, from our own mistakes,” says Marina Rivero, a 2018 EDGE fellow, whose work focuses on tapir recovery. “EDGE Fellowships [are] about communication. How to prepare a presentation, infographics, how to speak in public... [and] how to build alliances, how to deal with donors, how to be convincing about the work you do and why its important. That’s how the EDGE fellowship has made me a better conservationist.” 

Photo Ark EDGE fellows – including Marina Rivero, second from left – part of a joint project between the National Geographic Society and ZSL, hold Photo Ark images, indicating the species whose conservation they are researching; Costa Rica, 2018. The fate of ZSL will have impact on many conservation projects around the world.  

Photograph by Robin Moore, National Geographic Creative

As Mike Hoffmann points out, ZSL is directly involved in the conservation of more than half of the 34 species currently listed as Extinct in the Wild on the IUCN Red List – and some of those animals are the last of their kind. 

“As Dominic Jermey wrote in his blog, you can’t just mothball a zoo,” he says. “There are some 20,000 animals in our collections that need daily care and attention. Further, many of these species are highly threatened – or indeed survive only in captivity.” 

A young black-headed python, native to Australia, is weighed during the 2019 London Zoo weigh-in. ZSL has some 20,000 animals in its collections – many of which are endangered, or the last of its kind.

Photograph by Zuma Press, Inc., Alamy

“Hit early, and hard.”

ZSL is not alone. Since the coronavirus lockdown took away their most immediate sources of income, many zoos around the country have revealed they are struggling to maintain their work. Worldwide, causes for concern range from food supply chains being disrupted, to staff struggling to care for animals due to governmentally-imposed work restrictions and lack of 'key worker' status. Some have raised concerns about the ability to facilitate inter-zoo breeding programs for endangered species. But most are feeling the pressure due to a lack of their most critical lifeblood: visitors, and therefore funds.

“Zoos, safari parks and aquariums face an extraordinary challenge in lockdown,” Dr Christoph Schwitzer, Chair of British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) told National Geographic UK in an email. ”In supporting the national efforts to tackle the pandemic and electing to close to visitors, they have been hit early, and hard.”

Their plight has been widely reported beneath shocking headlines alongside appeals for public donations. But however emotive the pleas, the threat is real. 

Dartmoor Zoo – whose CEO Benjamin Mee wrote the book We Bought a Zoo, which was adapted into a 2011 film – revealed to Sky News that it would be forced to consider euthanasia for any animals that couldn’t be re-homed if its own funding shortfall forced closure. In the report deputy chief executive Coral Jonas asserted this was the worst case scenario, and “absolutely cannot happen as far as we're concerned.”

In Germany, it was reported that Neumünster Zoo may be pushed to use its own animals as food for others – with an article in the New York Times adding that the zoo’s polar bear Vitus “would be spared until it was the last animal standing”. With Germany’s lockdown easing, the zoo has since reopened, along with churches and museums.

At publication time British zoos have no concrete date for releasing lockdown – occupying what some consider an overlooked grey area in both the government’s phased reopening strategy, and its emergency funding wallet.

Garden centres were allowed to reopen on May 13 as part of the government's phased reopening plan if they comply with social distancing measure. Zoos argue that social distancing can be observed as well or better in their facilities – which would allow them to admit visitors again. 

Photograph by Richard Johnson, Alamy

“We have managed to secure some support from government... However this is not sufficient.”

Dr Christoph Schwitzer, BIAZA

“We have managed to secure some support from government,” says Schwitzer, “for example, a £14m Zoo Support Fund. However this is not sufficient. We are working to win further support so the sector can pull through this crisis and continue to make a difference to the conservation of life on earth.”

This £14 million for licensed zoos – announced by the government on May 4, and capped at £100,000 per grant – is intended to support smaller organisations in particular, and is likely just a stepping stone to a shore still an uncertain distance away. It's a shore that will probably lead to a very different landscape post COVID-19.  

On May 20 Andrew Rosindell MP – Chairman of the Zoos & Aquariums all-party parliamentary group – wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking for zoos and aquariums to reopen as part of Step 2 of the government’s recovery plan. In his letter Rosindell states these organisations should fall under the same social distancing mandate as garden centres – rather than the broader category of ‘ticketed outdoor venues’.

“I would strongly urge you to consider that a visit to a zoo or an aquarium is a significantly different social mixing experience compared to other high-density, static activities – i.e, large sports events,” he wrote. He then added that the ‘highly seasonal’ nature of zoos meant that time was slipping away for meaningful footfall; a critical point, given that numbers will need to be far lower anyway due to social distancing rules, and a presumably warier public.

Research to ‘reset’ 

As for the research side of ZSL's operations, ironically the coronavirus pandemic is both the reason for the zoo’s crisis and the need for its salvation. Mike Hoffmann asserts that post-pandemic, institutions like ZSL – whose work has focused heavily on the occurrence of species-straddling diseases such as Ebola and bovine tuberculosis – are instrumental in pressing what he calls the ‘reset on our relationship with nature.’  

“ZSL strongly believes that the root causes of the COVID-19 pandemic must be addressed,” he says. “Many drivers of biodiversity loss, such as habitat [destruction] and encroachment are also drivers of zoonotic disease emergence. As a result, the risk of zoonotic disease emergence increases, as biodiversity is lost.”


A youngster watching a Humboldt penguin at London Zoo, 2019. Numbers in the wild are declining, due to habitat loss and overfishing. 

Photograph by Jakub Rutkiewicz, Alamy

Future in the balance

Besides the value to conservation, perhaps the least tangible loss – but the most persuasive call to action – is one that most of the public will identify with. “One of the most special moments of my last few years was taking my eighteen month old son Logan for his first elephant encounter,” wildlife presenter and naturalist Steve Backshall told National Geographic UK. “He stood stupefied at the creature he’d seen over and again in his picture books, pointed wordlessly, and then looked at me in utter wonder. It makes me want to cry thinking about it.” 

“ZSL does so much work inspiring young kids, and driving conservation efforts all over the world,” he added. “I really hope that we can all come together to ensure their future survival.” 

Whether or not the government – or anyone else – steps in remains to be seen. But the sentiment written by ZSL’s director general in his blog post seems one echoed by many institutions facing similar uncertainty, and similar peril: “ZSL and its zoos can’t slip through the cracks.”


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