Loro Parque - An island of wildlife
Perhaps I could also give this title to my interview with Dr. Javier Almunia, who is the director of Loro Parque in Tenerife and doctor of marine sciences. He is a man who devotes all his attention and time to wildlife. Of course, the work of the park goes far beyond the possibilities offered by the island, in addition to the orcas or the parrots, this report will also discuss if we can rightly be afraid of climate change.
Lili Lajtár (LL): What is the biggest difficulty in creating a zoo?
Javier Almunia (JA): Currently the biggest difficulty in creating a zoo is the opposition from the anti-zoo groups that have created a bad reputation for zoos based in smear campaigns and biased information. Paradoxically, where the zoological gardens and aquariums are most needed to counter fight the global biodiversity crisis caused by the sixth mass extinction, when the global conservation organizations as IUCN or the Convention for Biological Diversity acknowledge the importance of ex situ conservation, when the experience and knowledge from zoo staff is most valuable, the animal rights organization are opposing the creation of zoos and aquariums.
LL: What is the most important thing, a zoo should pay attention to?
JA: In order to become an effective conservation tool, a zoo must focus in maximizing its conservation and research potential, while promoting environmental awareness and ensuring the maximum welfare of its animals. Since 1992 the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) set a clear heading for the zoos in order to help solve the environmental crisis, in the last decades it has become clear that this must be the main role of any zoo and aquarium. But this orientation will not be possible if the zoo do not guarantees the maximum welfare for all the animals.
LL: During the 50 years of Loro Parque's existence, what changes have been observed in relation to global warming?
JA: From its very conception Loro Parque was created as an animal embassy, a place to promote the protection of the nature. 50 years ago the very concept of global warming was not considered as one of the biggest problems for the biodiversity. During the 70s and 80s biodiversity loss was mainly produced by pollution and deforestation, and that was where the conservation actions promoted by Loro Parque were focusing. This situation has evolved and the global warming has become one of the biggest concerns globally in the last 20 years. When that happened Loro Parque started to promote the production of green energy, investing on its first solar power plant in 1999. Since then the renewable production of Loro Parque has grown to currently cover 100% of the energy consumption from its own solar and wild power plants, being the first zoological park worldwide reaching zero emissions by producing its own energy.
LL: How to save a species, that is on the brink of extinction?
JA: Saving a species on the brink of extinction is an extremely complicated question. First of all is necessary to determine the causes of the population decline and analyze if it is possible to correct of eliminate the threats and recover the population before is too late. Once the situation has been properly assessed it is necessary to plan carefully all the activities aimed to reduce threats and increase the population size, that can be done in multiple ways depending on each situation: habitat recovery, protected areas, breeding and reintroduction, environmental awareness, etc. Once the planing phase has been concluded it is necessary to implement all the necessary measures on the field, engaging the local population as much as possible to ensure success and long term capacity. After the implementation phase it is important to communicate the results, no matter if the final outcome is successful or not, any information will be useful for future conservation actions. And finally it is necessary to network with other organization and stakeholders to spread the outcomes of the conservation action. This process sometimes can take decades before the population recovers and the species is downgraded from the IUCN’s Red List.
LL: How can the decreasing natural habitats of species on the brink of extinction be protected?
JA: Habitat protection and recovery is one of the main tools in biodiversity conservation. The usual actions to preserve habitat are related with protected areas, that can be of different levels depending on the restrictions imposed to the use of the habitat. The conservation of important habitat can be driven from the administration and governments (top-down approach) or it can be also driven from the landowners or local communities (down-top approach). Both strategies have advantages and disadvantages and can be used alternatively or even coexist, but that should be analyzed for every specific conservation project. Apart from the use of protected areas, the habitat can be also protected with legislation and law enforcement, for example in the case of logging authorizations. In some cases religion or tribal regulations can be also very helpful to protect habitat loss.
LL: How does climate change and human activity affect aquatic creatures (e.g. orcas) and their environment? How can their effects be reduced or eliminated?
JA: Climatic change is going to affect dramatically to the marine ecosystems. The temperature rise is going to affect the primary production and consequently the whole trophic chain, but it will also promote deoxygenation of extense ocean regions that will reduce dramatically the amount of fish. There are also projections that predict a general reduction on the size of fish due to the raise in temperature and the metabolic effect on each individual fish. The temperate and cold regions (where orcas use to live) will be also constrained, reducing the available habitat for the marine mammals. And there are also predictions about changes in the ocean circulation even though the models are not precise enough to understand how that will affect the ecosystems exploited by the orcas. In conclusion orcas will be forced to adapt intense changes in the ecosystem and most probably migrate north to find severely reduced fish and marine mammal stocks to feed on. The only effective way to reduce this effects is reduce the CO2 emissions as soon as possible and work to find viable ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere in the future.
LL: How can people be encouraged to love and respect nature?
JA: This is a very difficult question and may of us would love to have the answer. In 1972 the first Earth Summit in Stockholm identified the global environmental crisis for the first time and postulated that the only way to avoid this crisis would be to change people’s behavior on a global scale. I think this analysis still valid today, but we have failed to promote this change. The zoos and aquariums work to promote this global change through environmental education and awareness. The experts on Stockholm’s summit identified that environmental education would be the best way to achieve this change, and we should continue promoting this love and respect to achieve it.
LL: Which species have the smallest population in the wild, which can be found in Loro Parque for species conservation?
JA: Loro Parque breeds regularly the Blue-Throated Macaw (Ara glaucogularis) a species that is estimated to have a wild population around 400 individuals. Loro Parque Fundación has an active project in Bolivia to preserve this species since 22 years and we have invested over 2 million dollars to downgrade this species from the IUCN’s Red List. The population is now growing slightly and our foundation has established on going habitat restauration actions that hopefully will support this positive trend.
LL: How do animals react to visitors?
JA: The reaction of animals to visitors depends very much on the species and even on the individual. Generally speaking the animals ignore de visitors, some of them are curious and a few individuals are even interacting or playing with them, trying to catch their attention. It has been scientifically proven that individual animals might have character or “personality” and in some cases they might be curious enough to try to catch the attention of the visitors.
LL: What effect do Tenerife's wildlife have on the zoo's creatures? (e.g. the appearance of a plant or an insect living in Tenerife on the lion’s area)
JA: In general, the appearance of plants or animals in the animal facilities is enriching for the animals. Some predators might have their predatory instinct activated by a bird or an insect, and display hunting behaviors. Other animals would simply observe or play, exploring the variability introduced by an unexpected visitor in the facility. In some cases we introduce this new plants to promote roaming or foraging behavior in the herbivorous species and they are always accepted with curiosity.
LL: How are animals collected for zoos for species conservation?
JA: Zoos and aquariums obtain their animals mainly by breeding or exchange between institutions. If in some particular situations there is a need to collect animals from the wild in order to establish an ex situ population for a conservation project this is done with an authorization issued by the environmental administration. The authorization establishes the limitations and procedures for the capture, to guarantee the welfare of the individuals that will be collected. In this cases the collection team is always integrated by a zoo veterinary who takes care of the needs of each animal and guarantees animal welfare during the whole process.
LL: How do you imagine the future of Loro Parque?
JA: I imagine a future were Loro Parque and the rest of the progressive zoos and aquariums are respected by the authorities and the general public for their enormous effort to preserve biodiversity, and can focus their work in saving species from the brink of extinction.
Thank you Dr. Javier Almunia for the interview, I hope your words will reach further, even to the point where decisions about the future of the planet are being considered. Good luck in your work and thanks to the park employees for their dedicated work every day.