The Vienna Zoo is on a journey, with animals, specialists, and visitors. On a journey with those visitors who have already visited the zoo and who already understand where our place is on this planet. The zoo does not have an easy task, since after all it has to encourage people to cooperate with nature, for which a deep faith and commitment is essential. However, all we have to do here and now is read the interview carefully and try to look at the world around us a little differently.
Ring tailed lemur (photo by Daniel Zupanc)
Lili Lajtár (LL): As a zoo with a centuries-old past, and as something that, by virtue of its existence, can simultaneously look into the past and infer the future, how do you see the relationship between humanity and nature? So, for example, do we have become more accepting and empathetic towards the characters of nature? What are your visitors' feedbacks about your living creatures? We, humans, obviously still have room for improvement, but what could be the direction?
Caroline Reinwald (CR): Shockingly, humanity has become the main driver of biodiversity loss. At the same time, it is up to every single one of us to make a change. Regarding the crisis we are in, many people have grown more and more aware of the natural world. It is hard to say if we have become more accepting or empathetic, but we have a lot of growing to do, that’s for sure. At the Vienna Zoo, our mission is to inspire our guests for the world of animals and to promote awareness for nature- and species conservation. We firmly believe that people will only try to save what they know and love. Our animals here act as ambassadors for their conspecifics in the wild. They help us to inform our visitors about the biology of different species as well as the threats these animals are facing in the wild. We have built ambassador centers, such as our “Polardom” to inform about different issues polar bears and other species are facing in the wild. We as humans have to become aware of issues that are out of our sight and that we may not encounter in our everyday life – and we have to start caring about them. We must recognize the habitat destruction, poaching and wildlife trade that has been going on for decades. Because if we don’t realize how pressing these issues are, we will soon live in a world without wildlife. In this context, zoos play a vital role as conservation and educational centers, and this role will only grow in the future.
LL: Which of your programs are particularly popular and in your opinion why?
CR: As a scientifically lead institution, education is one of our main pillars. Therefore, all of our programs are tailored towards conveying important topics, such as conservation, to our audience. Our night-tours are especially popular. These programs enable visitors to tour the zoo after visiting hours with a guide and night vision devices. During the tours, there is a special, calm atmosphere. Many animals are active at night, which the visitors seem to particularly enjoy. People often forget that various animals have activity patterns different from ours. Other popular programs are our backstage-tours where visitors get a glimpse behind the scenes of our zoo. This can range from the preparation of food to our breeding facilities. People seem to love getting a sneak-peek into the work that goes into keeping animals. We also offer tours for school classes free of charge. These are especially popular among students. Last year (2022), we toured over 1.000 school classes from different age groups! The focus here is on educating pupils on the biology and conservation of different animals. Generally, zoos are amongst the largest extracurricular institutions for nature education.
Amur leopard (photo by Daniel Zupanc)
LL: We are in a wave of mass extinctions, global warming, large-scale shrinking of natural habitats, but for now let's put aside the root causes, which can be human and/or natural systemic level. Do animals on the brink of extinction or in need of rescue arrive at your zoo? What are these and how can you help, I am thinking here, for example, of special living spaces and circumstances?
CR: In order to answer this question, I would first like to give some background information on how we contribute to species conservation in order to make the topic more understandable. Most of the animals we keep are endangered, species are carefully selected according to the “one plan approach”. This approach to species conservation entails the development of management strategies and conservation actions by all responsible parties for all populations of a species, including inside and outside its natural range. We breed these species in cooperation with other zoos (through coordinated breeding programs) in order to build healthy backup populations. These populations outside of the animals’ natural range function as a backup in case the species really does go extinct in the wild. This role is becoming more and more important, as natural habitats are dwindling worldwide. There are different species that would have already gone extinct if it weren’t for zoos. Examples are the California condor, the Przewalski’s horse (a Mongolian wild horse) and the European bison.
But that was just the general information on how scientifically lead zoos approach ex-situ conservation, meaning conservation outside of a species’ natural range. A specific species that came to our zoo on the brink of extinction was the Northern river terrapin, a species of turtle formerly native to Southeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar. In 2010, there were only 20 known individuals left in the wild. Four of these Individuals were brought to the Vienna Zoo, where we initiated an ex-situ breeding program. Shortly after, the zoo successfully bred individuals of this species for the first time ever – a true sensation. This yielded a wealth of new information that proved to be highly valuable for subsequent captive-breeding efforts. In cooperation with turtle expert Peter Praschag and the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), the zoo initiated a rescue program for the Northern river terrapin in Bangladesh. Turtles were tracked down in village ponds, purchased, and transferred to a captive-breeding center in Bhawal National Park, accompanied by staff members of the Bangladesh Forest Department. This facility guarantees protection for these rare animals and optimizes breeding efforts. As risk distribution and as a base station for a future introduction project, a second facility in Karamjal was adapted in 2015. After many hurdles, we were able to successfully reintroduce turtles into protected areas of mangrove forests, which is a huge step for the Northern river terrapin.
Northern river terrapin (photo by Rupert Kainradl)
Aside from the destruction of natural habitats, there is another huge driver for biodiversity loss: poaching and wildlife trafficking. We work closely with the Austrian customs department and have become the main refuge for wildlife that was smuggled into the country illegally and was seized by the authorities. This takes a huge effort from our side as we sometimes receive dozens (often more) animals on very short notice. Furthermore, we usually have no information on what species we are dealing with, it is up to us to identify them and care for them correctly. In 2021, we received over 70 chameleons from Tanzania, including species such as the highly endangered Nguru spiny pygmy chameleon. We not only took over the emergency care of these animals and housed them in special terrariums, we were also able to breed them successfully. Our efforts represent an important milestone for building healthy backup populations and combating the extinction of these species. Most recently, we received another load of trafficked animals: different geckos from the Namib desert. Up until now, we were able to provide emergency care for the severely stressed and dehydrated animals and are confident that we will be able to breed them in the future. Starting next year, a dedicated ambassador center will focus on wildlife trafficking and the issues that come with it.
Smuggled gecko (Chondrodactylus sp.) from the Namib desert (photo by Daniel Zupanc)
LL: With what programs can young people be inspired to love nature?
CR: As previously mentioned, our tours for school classes are very popular among younger age groups. We also offer programs for birthday parties where we teach children about the importance of conservation and biodiversity in a fun and playful way. Another program that is tailored towards younger age groups (but is fun for the parents as well) are our species conservation days. Over a span of three days, around 30 different nature- and species conservation organizations present their work to our visitors and teach them about animals, nature and what every single one of us can do to protect them. It is of great importance to us to reach younger generations as they are the ones who will be taking over the reins one day and who will be representing our future in conservation.
LL: The tiny creatures of our planet can help us get to know biodiversity better. Are you planning to start an insectarium or insect zoo that can be visited all year round, where visitors can see live insects and other arthropods, since in addition to their high number of species, their extremely diverse appearance certainly arouses curiosity and interest and therefore has enormous educational potential? If so, which species would you focus on?
CR: Here at the zoo, we focus on creating suitable habitats for wild insects – ranging from planting bee- and butterfly friendly flowers to leaving logs on the ground for wood-inhabiting beetles. We also conduct mappings of different insect-groups, such as butterflies, bees, beetles and dragonflies in order to accurately assess the different species that inhabit our zoo. The findings support the development of management strategies that promote insect biodiversity at the Vienna Zoo. Our efforts are already paying off and visitors can see all kinds of wild insects during their visit. This in turn creates an understanding for the huge diversity that insects have evolved, but also how important they are for functioning ecosystems. We also have bee colonies here at the zoo and educate people on their biology as well as their significance as pollinators. Additionally, we have different insect species (or arthropod species in general) spread throughout various exhibitions of the zoo.
Emperor dragonfly (photo by Daniel Zupanc)
LL: If you had the opportunity to change people's way of thinking (view, point of view) regarding they connect with nature, what would they be?
CR: This is a very difficult question to answer. We focus more on what takeaway message we want to convey to our visitors. The animal kingdom is full of wonders and breathtaking phenomena, but it needs our protection. This is something that not everybody may be aware of yet, which we would like to change. In times like these it is also easy to get disheartened by all the bad news surrounding biodiversity loss, global warming, etc. We want to convey that it is up to every single one of us to make a difference. That every single one of us can contribute something meaningful to the protection of species. That we need nature and that we ARE nature. By protecting species and ecosystems, we protect ourselves. The measures you take in order to conserve species can have many faces. If you have a garden or balcony, you can plant wildflowers for butterflies and bees. You can also dedicate a corner of your garden to wildlife by letting nature take over and by minimizing the maintenance you do in that specific area. This gives local species a place to hide. You can donate to different conservation projects, many of them are listed on our website. Small changes in one´s everyday life can also have a huge impact. This goes for buying locally sourced fruit and vegetables to reducing the consumption of meat. There are many more ways you can help protect species, and every little bit helps.
LL: Which programs do the older age groups of your visitors, those in their 50s, 60s and 70s, enjoy spending time on? What do you think is the reason why these age groups prefer these programs more than other programs?
CR: Our guided tours in the evening are particularly popular amongst these age groups. Much like during our night-tours, participants are given the chance to experience the zoo after visiting hours, all while our tour-guides educate them on the animals they encounter. Many also enjoy our evening events, such as our Safari-dinners or Polar-nights. The appeal here is that the atmosphere is calmer and less hectic once the official visiting hours are over, many animals are also more active during dusk. These activities can also be a fun after-work program for those who want to unwind from a stressful day at the office. Retirees often join our volunteering program “Team Zoo Aktiv” and are involved in cleaning, crafting, administrative work, visitor services or helping out at events. Apart from donating, this is a very valuable way of supporting us as well as our conservation efforts. It is nice to see how passionate many of the volunteers are about their contribution. They also get the chance to engage with likeminded people, which they seem to particularly enjoy.
Greater flying fox (Pteropus vampyrus) with young (photo by Daniel Zupanc)
LL: The raison d'être of a zoo largely depends on the social perception of the message it conveys, which is significantly supported by the effectiveness of the educational, informative and species conservation work it carries out, obviously depending on the predetermined goals. What messages do you think a European zoo should convey to the European population? In fact, I will go further, a zoo, be it anywhere in the world, what absolute meaningful message should it convey to humanity, which can be equally valid everywhere on the planet? For example: "Get to know your place of residence and your surroundings!" or "The planet belongs to all of us!" or "If Europe is in trouble, the world is in trouble!" or "When you think and act in parts, you still affect the whole!" or "Hope can't be a tactic, but action can be!" such and such, so what is your message and what do you think would be a general message?
CR: There are so many important messages and so many things we want to convey to people. But one huge message that we want to send is that in order to sustainably protect species, we must all work together, be it zoos, the general public, scientists, NGOs or whoever. This is why we also follow the one plan approach. If we coordinate our efforts here at the zoo with conservation actions in the wild, then we can support one another, learn from one another and ultimately have a much larger standing. It is also the reason one of our pillars here at the zoo is education. By educating people and creating admiration and fascination for wildlife, we can foster awareness in the general public. Because it is up to every single one of us to make a change and at the same time, we must all come together to create change.
LL: What are your future plans?
CR: A zoo is never finished. We always want to improve our facilities according to the newest scientific discoveries and standards. We are currently renovating an enclosure to make it suitable for animals living in the Asian highlands, such as our Himalayan thars. Furthermore, a new aquarium is in the works. We are also renovating our rainforest house. But aside from these more technical projects, we want to focus even more on communicating species conservation and science. Our zoo has shifted greatly from being a place that merely displayed exotic animals in the 18th century to a modern, scientifically lead institution that focuses on supporting wildlife conservation. Zoos play a key role in the conservation of species through education and PR work, breeding programs, genetic backups, financial and material contributions as well as expert knowledge. With natural habitats dwindling and ecosystems being destroyed, this role will become more and more prevalent, and we are doing our best to rise to the challenge.
Giant panda (photo by Daniel Zupanc)
LL: How do animals relate to your visitors?
CR: Most animals here at the zoo were born in zoos. For them, the countless visitors are part of their daily life. Of course, some species and individuals are more interested in people than others. However, it is very important to us that the animals exhibit their natural social behaviors and interact with their conspecifics or other species (when held in mixed species exhibits). Therefore, we always match the right age groups, sexes and personalities to stimulate social interactions (in social species). We also do not allow visitors to feed the animals, the only exception being the petting zoo.
Foot-flagging frog (photo by Daniel Zupanc)
LL: Which species are the most important in the Vienna Zoo?
CR: For us, all of the animals are of the same importance. Of course, we are most known for keeping Giant Pandas and they have become the Flagship species of the Vienna Zoo. But in natural ecosystems, all animals are important. Every single species fulfills a certain role and is vital for the balance within the ecological community. Following this principle, we don’t value some species more than others. We also follow an institutional collection plan (ICP) that is used to decide on which species are kept at the zoo. We do not select species according to how cute they are or how much we would like to have them.
An important criterion for the selection of a species is the degree of endangerment. For example, the polar bear at the zoo acts as an ambassador for its endangered conspecifics and its dwindling natural habitat in the Arctic. In the case of endangered species, it also plays a decisive role whether the zoo supports a species conservation project in the wild, as in the case of the Ural Owl. For the reintroduction of this species, we were already able to provide 41 juvenile birds. Another criterion for the ICP is whether an animal species is included in a European Conservation Breeding Program (EEP) of the European Zoo Association, EAZA, or even in an international conservation breeding program. There are also species that are special because they are very rarely kept at zoos, like the Blue-backed manakin. We were even able to successfully breed this species. Some animals are involved in research projects. An example are foot-flagging frogs, whose fascinating behavior is being studied at the Vienna Zoo.
Blue-backed manakin male (photo by Daniel Zupanc)
LL: Is there anything you think is important to highlight?
CR: As a conservation- and educational center with about two million visitors per year, we are one of Austria’s most popular attractions. This not only presents a great challenge, but also a huge opportunity. We have the potential to educate our visitors (and online audience) on the most pressing issues of our time, biodiversity loss. Scientifically lead zoos have shifted from only being about displaying animals to so much more. There is so much work that goes on in the background, there is so much science, there are so many conservation projects that are being supported. In times like these, the contribution of zoos plays a vital role in conservation – and this role will only grow in the future up to the point where conservation (sadly) will no longer work without zoos. All because humanity is too busy destroying the intact ecosystems we have left. We hope it never comes to that and will continue to play our part in conserving species for generations to come.
Zoo employees, Rupert Kainradl (left) and Doris Preininger (right) in Bangladesh. (photo by Jonas Kühnapfel)
Thank you Caroline Reinwald for the meaningful discussion and the beautiful pictures, and I wish every employee at the Vienna Zoo a continued successful work.