Exotic animals in the urban jungle - an outdated model?

The road to hell is paved with good intentions – at least that’s what some ecologists and conservationists are saying about the City’s plans to transform the Buenos Aires Zoo into an “interactive Ecoparque,” — a project which is being discussed tomorrow in the Buenos Aires City legislature.

A group of ten conservationist NGOs has come out strongly against the plans, arguing they represent an “uninformed and sentimental ecologism” which will do more damage than good, according to La Nacion, who interviewed them ahead of a press release expected to come out today or tomorrow. The conservationists demand the refounding of the zoo and a substantial increase in investment to ensure that it can become a modern, well-functioning institution that performs of the task of “conservation and environmental education in the 21st century.”

The conversations cast doubt on the credibility of the government’s plans, which for many environmentalists and conservationists is coming off as more feel-good than do-good. Claudio Bertonatti, former director of the zoo, who controversially resigned in 2013 after fighting bitterly for its modernization – also allied with the NGOs – describes this as “political opportunism, governmental marketing and a media circus” to La Nacion.

Arguing against animal liberationists, the organisations point out that zoos, when properly modernized and administered, actually serve a crucial role in conserving endangered species. “Animals in captivity, in adequate conditions, do not suffer stress or face the challenges of their environment, the threat of predators, or loss loss of habitat and scarcity of food,” said Francisco Erize, ex president of National Parks.

“Nobody in the international scientific community doubts the indispensable role that modern zoological institutions play in their work in outreach and technical knowledge, in the current context of the crisis of species extinction” said biologist Obdulio Menighi, ex-coordinator of the United Nation’s Environmental Program, to La Nacion.

Buenos Aires Zoo, 18 hectares in the middle of Palermo. Photo: La Nacion
Buenos Aires Zoo, 18 hectares in the middle of Palermo. Photo: La Nacion


The Buenos Aires Government decided to dismantle the zoo in June of this year. According to the government, the zoo was no longer performing the role that had originally been envisioned for it: “to look after and conserve animals, providing them with a natural and respectful environment.”

The zoo was, from all accounts, in crisis. Crumbling facilities, union factionism, fewer visitors, and, worst of all, animal deaths. In December of 2012, the zoo’s last polar bear died from the stress caused by scorching temperatures and holiday season firecrackers. For many, the zoo, with its exotic animals species on display as though they were curiosities, and its location in the midst of a city as big and intense as Buenos Aires, made it seem cruelly archaic.

Source: La Nacion
Source: La Nacion


And so the government rescinded the contract with Jardín Zoológico de Buenos Aires S.A., took control of the property themselves and began the process of turning the zoo into an ecoparque. Though it’s a long way off yet, the government says the park will serve as an “educational space”, more virtual than actual, though it will also act as a home for sick animals to convalesce.

There is, however, no precedent for this in the world, according to Bertonatti, and it’s a formidable task. 1500 animals need to be relocated, each one with a different set of needs. It costs $40,000 USD alone to rehome a giraffe. Given this, the conservationists see the plans as poorly conceived and quixotic.