First of all, I would like to thank the honourable members for the invitation to provide comment on the development of a national conservation plan for Canada. My intention this afternoon is to speak not only on behalf of the Calgary Zoological Society but also to represent accredited Canadian zoos and aquariums and illustrate collectively what we can and should contribute both to the development and the implementation of this worthwhile initiative.
Given the time constraints, I will focus on two key areas in which the contribution of zoos and aquariums is arguably unsurpassed by any other conservation sector, namely public engagement and captive breeding for reintroduction. However, committee members should also know that zoos have a growing and substantial role to play in conservation efforts in the wild across the globe through fundraising, the provision of expertise, and direct action, as they are mandated to do so by the world zoo and aquarium conservation strategy.
First of all, let me provide you some background information on zoos that may provide context to our potential contribution to this initiative. In North America more people visit zoos and aquariums annually than attend professional sporting events. In Canada, one in three Canadians visits zoos accredited by the Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums every year. In essence, more people vote in favour of zoos by visiting them annually than support any single political party at election time. These visitors represent a democratic cross-section of Canadian society, cutting across generations and socio-economic and cultural backgrounds, as well as including the physically able and those living with disabilities. So we're uniquely placed to bring different communities together to engage in constructive discussions relating to issues of the environment.
While visits to national parks and historic sites within Canada are in decline, attendance around the world at good zoos like the Calgary Zoo continues to grow. Zoos, therefore, have a huge, growing and potentially receptive audience for environmental education. Despite Canada being truly blessed with natural wonders and resources, Canadians, and our children in particular, are increasingly environmentally illiterate as communities become ever more urbanized. This worrying trend is perhaps illustrated by the decline in young visitors to Canada's glorious parks.
Zoos, working alongside parks and schools, are uniquely positioned to help reverse this trend toward a nature deficit disorder in our urban young. In connecting communities with arguably Canada's most cherished assets, its wonderful natural resources, Calgary Zoo has worked with educators from Parks Canada for the past two years trying to do just that, connecting our guests with nature and Canada's national parks network. The Canadian Association of Zoos and Aquariums also has a memorandum of understanding with Parks Canada on pursuing shared objectives of education and outreach.
Recent round table discussions on the development of a national conservation plan suggest that education, communication, and working with urban communities should be central components to this plan. Whilst many may challenge the impact that zoos have on environmental education, I know my personal journey in conservation was shaped by my early experiences of London Zoo as a child growing up in that city, and I know that many of my colleagues working in conservation share similar stories. I put it to the committee that the accredited Canadian zoos and aquariums provide a unique opportunity to engage Canadian citizens in discussions about conservation initiatives, connecting them with nature in an environment that sensitizes them to crucial messages in a way that the classroom or TV rarely can. In doing so, hopefully they will inspire us, as zoos did for me, to take action in our lives that can make a lasting difference to wildlife.
Beyond engaging people, zoos globally are already key players in biodiversity conservation. The 300-strong World Association of Zoos and Aquariums network contributes approximately $350 million a year to in situ conservation.
However, beyond conventional conservation activities, zoos are the experts in captive breeding and conservation genetics and reintroduction, strategies identified as key to 55% of Canadian species recovery programs. Furthermore, captive breeding and reintroduction has already played a role in 25% of the successful vertebrate species recovery programs worldwide.
Of course, extinction is forever, and zoos are likely to be the last hope for many species. Zoos already have guardianship of approximately one in seven of the threatened species on earth. Sadly, habitat protection alone is unlikely to prevent an inexorable decline of many species, including amphibian populations imperilled by the devastating spread of chytrid fungus; Asian freshwater turtle populations decimated by unsustainable and uncontrollable harvesting for food; and species impacted by accelerating environmental change, such as coral reef communities that are declining due to ocean acidification.
For these and many other species, zoos may genuinely be the only hope. It is for that reason that zoos should play a meaningful role in the development of a holistic conservation strategy for Canada. Zoos, after all, have already proven their effectiveness in helping to save many iconic Canadian species.
The Calgary Zoo, for example, has partnered with other zoos and conservation organizations across Canada and beyond to help reintroduce and recover the Vancouver Island marmot, whooping cranes, the swift fox, black-footed ferrets, and burrowing owls. In partnership with Parks Canada and the B.C. government, we hope to soon start work on restoring the iconic mountain caribou to the mountain parks of western Canada. We not only contribute captive-bred animals for release to such programs, but also provide expertise on population management and reintroduction of science and monitoring.
I hope I've shown that accredited zoos and aquariums may have a crucial role in the implementation of a national conservation plan. I also believe we can contribute to the development of that plan. After all, zoos are cooperative consensus builders.
Globally, captive-breeding and reintroduction is absent from the policies of most governments, and yet it is recognized to be pertinent to over half of Canada's species recovery strategies. Therefore, it would seem inconceivable to develop a conservation plan for Canada without recognizing and including the experts in this field.
Furthermore, zoos are already helping to shape national conservation policies. For example, the staff at the Calgary Zoo have been involved in co-authoring national species-specific recovery strategies for the swift fox, black-footed ferret, and black-tailed prairie dog, and they are currently active in planning the recovery strategy for the mountain caribou. In addition to this we also have international experience in conservation policy development.
In spite of their potential and actual contributions to conservation, historically zoos have not been widely acknowledged in the development of overarching environmental policies. Two recent federal and provincial documents commissioned on ecosystem strategies and species conservation make no mention of zoos and their past or potential contribution to Canadian biodiversity conservation.
Why is this? Is this oversight because zoos are thought of as commercial attractions alone rather than serious conservation organizations? I hope my presentation today has helped to illustrate that zoos are serious about conservation. Or is this oversight because of concerns that some have raised about captive animal welfare, leading to a political reluctance to engage with zoos? I'd like to address this point directly.
Professionally operated accredited zoos are passionate about and dedicated to the highest standards of animal care. They are held accountable to that by our accrediting bodies and, perhaps more importantly, the public. However, zoos must be open to constructive insights in order to move forward and seek continual improvement in animal care. I believe and hope that this is increasingly the case.
My own background in part is in the field of animal welfare science and policy development. I see only great synergy between a commitment to animal welfare and the role of zoos as conservation leaders, since conservation is in many ways about maintaining population and ecosystem welfare. In short, I believe the mandate of zoos has to be conservation in all its guises, including the contribution to initiatives such as this, but our moral licence to operate must be based around excellent animal welfare.
In summing up, and speaking on behalf of accredited professionally managed zoos across Canada, we have much expertise, enthusiasm, and skills to contribute to a national conservation plan, both in terms of development and subsequent implementation. We would be delighted to work with our government to help ensure that we collectively leave a rich and bio-diverse environment for future generations of Canadians.