Are zoos and aquariums improving public understanding of biodiversity?

In response to the UN Strategic Plan for Biodiversity – created by the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) – World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) (a partner of CBD) launched a campaign (in 2005) to assess current public understanding of biodiversity and to ensure that this understanding improved as a result of refined science communication within zoos and aquariums.

WAZA have been undertaking an assessment of the success to which zoos and aquariums around the world effectively educate the public about biodiversity and this month the results were released.

By conducting a survey of visitor knowledge before and after their exposure to biodiversity information, WAZA were able to gauge the success of education facilities and interest levels of the public. Additionally, the backgrounds of visitors were established which is important to ensure information is communicated at the correct pitch and style.

Altogether, information from 6000 visitors at 30 zoos across the world was gathered. Although, it may be difficult to fully assess biodiversity understanding from these surveys due to such a small sample (there are 700 million annual visitors worldwide to zoos and aquariums).

The average zoo and aquarium visitor is 35 year old (mean age) women (59.3%) who spent 15 years in formal education and were repeat visitors to the zoo or aquarium (59.9%). A majority (86.4%)of visitors had watched a nature documentary in the last 12 months and so had an active interest in nature and wildlife, although only 12.7% were a member of a nature-orientated or conservation group.

Within the survey – before and after visitation – participants were asked about their understanding of biodiversity and understanding of pro-biodiversity actions (large scale and small scale). Before visitation, 9.9% displayed a strong understanding of biodiversity and 69.5% had a basic understanding of the concept of biodiversity, meaning they knew it was a biological concept. On a scale of one to ten, the mean understanding was 2.99+/-1.2. Younger respondents had a better understanding of biodiversity which is indicative of an increase in targeted education about biodiversity and conservation within schools and to school-age individuals. Additionally, those who watched nature shows had a better understanding of biodiversity and what it means. This increased knowledge as a result of education via media may also be partially responsible for an overall increased public trust in science in recent years. These groups also had a greater knowledge of actions (large and small) that would promote biodiversity.

On a scale of one to ten, knowledge of actions that could positively influence biodiversity averaged at 4.9 and increased to 5.17 after visiting. The percentage of people who could identify personal actions to take increased from 50.5% to 58.8%. Suggestions of actions included recycling, responsible consumption of goods and services and supporting relevant organisations.

Biodiversity literacy increased to 75.1% post visit, an increase of 5.6% and visitors to European and Middle-Eastern zoos had a greater understanding of biodiversity and positive actions than Asian and African zoos. In addition, visitors to South American, African and Asian zoos showed lowest increase in knowledge. It is important that this is addressed considering these regions contain areas of such high biodiversity in urgent need of protection.

Several other researchers and organisations have undertaken similar assessments including the Union of Ethical Biotrade who found (during a study that took place from 2009) that out of 11,000 individuals, 28% had a partial understanding of biodiversity whilst 39% had a good understanding. Balmford et al. (2007) undertook research at seven British wildlife attractions and found that informal visits had little to no impact on conservation knowledge or ability to act positively.

From this, it is clear that a more standardised approach to assessment needs to be taken so clearer statistics can be universally established. There also needs to be further research provided and innovative ideas established to ensure effective science communication within zoos and aquariums. Additionally, WAZA need to help ensure key regions improve their ability to communicate biodiversity science.