Zoos Victoria

50 Greatest Wildlife Photographs

This September, Melbourne Zoo is set to host the best wildlife photographs from around the world that have featured in National Geographic over the past 130 years. Curated by Kathy Moran, the exhibition will include some of the world's most renowned wildlife photographers. 

Melbourne Zoo director Kevin Tanner hopes the spectacular photographs will compel visitors to remember that all animals deserve our greatest respect, awe and preservation.

'These extraordinary photographs show what some of the world’s most wondrous wildlife looks
like in their natural habitat,' Mr Tanner said. 'As a zoo-based conservation organisation, we are
doing our very best to ensure a future rich in wildlife, and we are extremely proud to debut this
stunning exhibition at Melbourne Zoo.'

National Geographic's 50 Greatest Wildlife Photographs shows an unmatched legacy of artistic, scientific and technical achievement. Showcasing the evolution of photography, the images convey how innovations such as camera traps, remote imaging, and underwater technology have granted photographers access to wildlife in their natural habitat.

The exhibition opens on 7 September 2018 and closes 30 November 2018 at Carousel Park, Melbourne Zoo. 

For more information, visit zoo.org.au/50greatest.

Banner image courtesy of Tim Laman.

The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation

Cover with image of 5 month old mandrill,  Mandrillus sphinx  (photo by Joel Sartore).  Image: CSIRO Publishing

Cover with image of 5 month old mandrill, Mandrillus sphinx (photo by Joel Sartore). Image: CSIRO Publishing

‘Zoo’. Oops, did I just say a bad word? Zoos are places of captivity, four walls (sometimes a roof) and metal bars, right? No animal should ever live there. Or, are they a refuge, a place for rehabilitation, research and conservation? Perhaps an animal (or species in general) could benefit from a zoo? Jenny Gray’s book Zoo Ethics: The Challenges of Compassionate Conservation asks us to question our conventional understanding of zoos (well-run zoos, that is!), highlighting not just the conservation efforts they undertake, but also our own philosophies as to how and why we should care for an animal’s mental and physical wellbeing as we would our own.

Gray begins by tracing the history of zoos, detailing the shift from the private menageries of the rich and powerful of antiquity, the public gardens of the late 1700s filled with exotic creatures (hence ‘zoological gardens’ i.e. ‘zoo’) and finally, to the modern-day zoos that feature in many of the world’s major cities. One constant has remained, however: the lingering, almost instinctive imagery of imprisonment that comes to mind when people hear the word ‘zoo’. Unfortunately, it is this bias which can influence people’s understanding of what a modern-day zoo is and how it functions. Being careful not to paint all zoos with the same brush, Gray clearly defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed. By taking your hand, walking you through the history of zoos and the evolution of our philosophies regarding animal rights and welfare, Gray is able to relieve you of any preconceived notions of what a zoo is or might be, and opens your mind to the ethical considerations and dilemmas zoos must face.

Fighting Extinction campaign logo.  Image:  Zoos Victoria

Fighting Extinction campaign logo. Image: Zoos Victoria

Fully aware of what a modern zoo is and how it functions, Gray prepares you for what constitutes the bulk of the book. Throughout the next few chapters, the reader is introduced to a variety of ethical philosophies central to defining a well-run and compassionate zoo. Although philosophy can seem daunting, Gray cleverly builds up this section in complexity, allowing you first to understand the basic principles of animal welfare and rights through concepts like the Five Freedoms (freedom from hunger or thirst, freedom from discomfort, freedom from pain, injury or disease, freedom to express natural behaviours, freedom from fear or distress).

The real crux of the book delves (not too deeply but quite succinctly) into the complexities around ethical behaviour in general, in particular consequentialism (how the value or righteousness of an act is judged by its outcome), virtue theory (largely concerned with the character of people - are we creating ‘better’ people?), and environmental ethics (understanding that nature’s value isn’t limited by its value to humans and that all life is central to the value of nature). Gray presents a well-measured balance of rational arguments when addressing each of these ethical philosophies in the context of zoos, their operations, and conservation in general. Credit is freely given where due and in cases where Gray disagrees, arguments are confidently and soundly rebutted. To this end, Gray is able to gently place you well inside the camp of ‘zoos can really be a modern-day ark’. Importantly, by this stage, you are well on your way to understanding the basics of key ethical philosophies which empower you to make your own, well-informed decisions.

 Gray defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed.  Image:  Elmira G.  on  Unsplash

 Gray defines what a modern-day, well-run zoo looks like compared to those which are severely under-resourced and poorly managed. Image: Elmira G. on Unsplash

Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. This is what a ‘wicked problem’ is – problems where solutions don’t come easily, are neither right nor wrong, and often result in some form of negative consequence. Many of us remember the case of Harambe, the gorilla that was shot dead to protect a child who’d fallen into the enclosure at Cincinatti Zoo in 2016. Opening with this well-known story, Gray introduces several, real-life ‘wicked problems’ (my favourite part of the book!), asking us to consider what we would do were we a zoo. Now armed with a sufficient understanding of zoos, ethics, and animal welfare, you get to choose the outcome. Suffice to say, these wicked problems provide a genuinely great kick-starter for opening dialogue at a dinner party. Ultimately, the purpose of this section of the book is to experience the process well-run zoos undertake and the raft of possible consequences they must consider. No longer heartless menageries, zoos must balance the weight of outcomes for the animals in question and ourselves. Ask yourself, what would you do?

My only criticism of the book is that although aquariums are initially included in the strict definition of a zoo, aquatic examples are limited in their reference. In later parts of the book, I felt as though the concept of aquarium was divorced from that of a zoo. Many examples of animal treatment in the book are limited to ‘terrestrial’ zoos and although not dismissive of aquatic examples entirely, often the focus is on marine mammals (i.e. whales and dolphins). Being a marine biologist, I feel that this minor issue with the book is reflective of our relatively limited understanding of marine life (particularly fish) and our comparative distance in affections for them – for many, fish lack the cute and cuddly factor. Personally, I would have liked to see a little more focus on animal welfare in the context of aquariums, but this by no means detracts from the great value and insight the book provides.

How can we ensure that Australian zoos remain places of refuge for both native and non-native species?  Image:  Cris Saur  on  Unsplash

How can we ensure that Australian zoos remain places of refuge for both native and non-native species? Image: Cris Saur on Unsplash

Gray is undoubtedly a leader in conservation, in both its theoretical and practical application. The book makes a strong case for rebranding zoos as ‘arks’, a place of refuge and an important tool in aiding conservation efforts. As I read the book, I not only became increasingly appreciative of ‘compassionate conservation’ and how such treatment aids the wellbeing of an animal, but importantly, I found myself reflecting on my own actions towards those I care for, human and animal alike, inside and outside the zoo.

The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.
- Mahatma Ghandi

You can purchase your copy of Zoo Ethics from CSIRO Publishing.


Leonardo Guida

Following a childhood love for sharks, Leo recently completed his PhD at Monash University investigating the effects of fishing on shark and ray populations. He is Director of Community Operations for Wild Melbourne.

You can find him on Twitter at @ElasmoBro.

Banner image by Ian McGrory, unsplash.com.

The Lady's Choice

Only if we understand can we care.

That sentence is the beginning of a quote from beloved conservationist Jane Goodall. It is also the beginning of an idea, growing amongst people in science; an idea that leads biologists away from the forests and deserts of their research and into lecture theatres and radio studios. Our own understanding is not enough. Our own knowledge, sifted and harvested from thousands of hours’ worth of data and records and testing, can no longer rest amongst just those who share in our pursuits. It is the public who matter.

Twice a month, the Royal Society of Victoria takes aim at just this idea with free, open lectures. Ranging through a banquet of scientific disciplines, speakers are chosen to bring information about their work to anyone interested. For those who attended in late February the topic was the encroaching extinction of Victoria’s most vulnerable animals, brought by Dr Marissa Parrott of Zoos Victoria.

When an animal becomes vulnerable, through predation or habitat loss or any other unfortunate cause, the challenge for conservationists is maintaining enough genetic diversity to ensure future recovery. Many times over, isolated populations have shown that an increase in inbreeding leads to a decrease in health. A population of one male and one female will often struggle to survive, no matter how fertile they are.

Socially, the aversion to incestuous relationships is deeply ingrained in a number of societies. From a biological viewpoint this is highly beneficial, for two important reasons. Firstly, inherited disadvantages are much more prevalent in inbred populations – if both parents are hiding some faulty gene received from a common ancestor, then the chance of their offspring receiving two bad copies and no good ones becomes very real.

The helmeted honeyeater. Image: Trent Browning / Zoos Victoria

The helmeted honeyeater. Image: Trent Browning / Zoos Victoria

Secondly, even if all genetic information is functioning normally, the lack of variety means that the species won’t be as capable of coping with surprises. This may be the ability to adapt to changes in the environment, such as temperature and water availability, but immunity is also a major concern. The major histocompatibility complex (MHC) protects mammals from infection by anticipating what bacteria or viruses might look like, building from a combination of variable genes. A greater variety in these genes means a greater number of threats that a species is prepared for, while a limited gene pool is less likely to be ready for rare and new pathogens. It’s like a game of poker with half the deck missing; if there are no aces in the pile, there’s no chance of playing a royal flush when you need to.

Historically, this has made captive breeding programs a very mathematical process. Introducing genetically dissimilar individuals ensures that offspring are biologically equipped with the best chance they could have, and zoos have developed extensive stud books to keep track of family trees. However, developing the acquaintance between the male and female often takes time; slow breeding and small brood sizes were once seen as common.

The agile antechinus ( Antechinus agilis ). Image: John Gould

The agile antechinus (Antechinus agilis). Image: John Gould

Dr Parrott’s work with dunnarts, Antechinus and other marsupial species introduced a different method. She showed that when a female was able to select her own partner, it took less time for the pair to begin reproducing, gave rise to a greater number of pregnancies, and all with decreased aggression between the female and the male. On the surface, this seems like an easy and more certain way of increasing the success of breeding programs. However, the limited resources of conservation strategies mean that every angle needs to be considered and every variable controlled to best create genetically fit and well-adjusted populations. If the female was allowed to choose her own mate from a group of genetically suitable suitors provided by zoo staff, what was the risk of her choosing a bad match?

The dilemma was a strong one. It’s been shown that mammals are more comfortable socialising with individuals they’ve met before, and particularly with family. Dr Parrott and her collaborators’ work with Tasmanian devils at Healesville Sanctuary showed that introducing young devils to one another – growing used to the smells, sounds, and personalities of new animals – led to greater interactions, more activity and increased denning with their conspecifics. While socialising young devils appears to produce more socially competent animals as adults, further research showed that their interest in novel or familiar animals was similar; a good outcome for breeding programs that introduce a variety of potential mates. However, could some females be selecting males that appear familiar, and risk all the complications of inbreeding?

No, it turns out. Not at all. In her 2015 paper, Dr Parrott shows that female Antechinus were perfectly capable of distinguishing between related and unrelated males, and acting accordingly. Her earlier research on the species shows that it largely comes down to scent – among other cues, with a possibility that the MHC produces chemical traces that change how a male smells to a female. Multiple tests showed that females are more interested in those who smell different to themselves, making more frequent and longer visits to males that were genetically dissimilar. Males that were genetically dissimilar to females secured more matings and sired the highest proportion of young. While it’s not yet clear which range of specific cues other than genetic dissimilarity are providing the information, the result is inarguable – the lady knows best. In a system where multiple matings almost always produce a litter with more than one father, offspring were found to have come from genetically distant males around 9 out of 10 times.

With the limited resources available to conservation programs, understanding how to best produce a robust population is crucial. Zoos Victoria’s Fighting Extinction plan has committed to a magnificent goal: that no Victorian terrestrial vertebrates will go extinct on their watch. Ever. This includes 20 high priority species, as well as a watchlist of other vulnerable animals. But the programs aren’t just about breeding and habitat monitoring – we come into them as well, in the small changes we can make to our daily lives. The fantastic Wipe for Wildlife campaign is one such example, calling for the simple change to recycled toilet paper - with its very own superhero. And there’s the Love Your Locals campaign – helping children and adults alike to discover who they’re sharing Victoria with, before we’re left alone.

Only if we understand can we care.
Only if we care will we help.
Only if we help shall they be saved.
— Jane Goodall

Paul Jones

Paul works in science education and has been a teaching member of Monash University's Department of Biology since 2010. He is interested in community engagement and sustainable urban development.

No place like home: the case for rewilding the Tasmanian devil

Tassie Devils are amazing creatures, but their situation is dire. Australia’s largest marsupial carnivore is one of the few species on Earth whose major plight isn’t caused by humans. Rather, it is caused by something much more insidious – evolution.

Evolution, in combination with low genetic diversity caused by a series of historical population crashes, has conjured up a horrible illness called the Devil Facial Tumour Disease or DFTD. Originating from the mutated cell of a single devil, DFTD causes large, cancerous growths to form in the animal’s mouth, preventing feeding and often causing death due to starvation. It’s a horrible way to go.

The devastating facial tumour disease. Photo source: Menna Jones / Wikimedia Commons

The devastating facial tumour disease.
Photo source: Menna Jones / Wikimedia Commons

However, what is most frightening about this tumour is that it is contagious - among devils, not people. Devils often feed together on the same carcass, or even fight over it. This causes the cancer cells to move from devil to devil through saliva in their food as they argue over the last scraps. It’s this aggressive, transmissible quality that has seen the cancer spread like wildfire from one single individual to nearly the entire Tasmanian population, from east to west. The result is a species teetering on the brink of extinction. 

Despite a lot of work being done on creating vaccines for DFTD, maintaining captive breeding populations and, recently, establishing a wild population on Maria Island free of DFTD, this may not be enough. A new, potentially game changing proposal has also been gaining momentum: to re-establish or rewild disease-free populations of the Tassie Devil to mainland Australia. This kind of innovative thinking could be the saviour of the species. 

So, what is the case for rewilding the Tasmanian Devil?  

Is it time for the Tasmanian devil to return to its former home? Photo: SJ Bennett

Is it time for the Tasmanian devil to return to its former home? Photo: SJ Bennett

1. Devils used to be here, anyway

Fossils show that the devil coexisted with other native mammals on the mainland up until fairly recently (5000 to 400 years ago, depending on the accuracy of the dating). In fact, Devils once lived far up into the north of the country. Why did they disappear? No one knows for sure, but hunting by Indigenous Australians and the introduction of the dingo may have had something to do with it. 

Because of this, we can be fairly sure that devils, if brought back to mainland Australia, wouldn’t be another cane toad or European carp disaster, eating everything in its path. Also, Devils have lived with an enormous range of bite-sized marsupials in Tasmania, much more than mainland Australia. This suggests that Devils are capable of coexisting with smaller prey species without hunting them to extinction. 

Recent research using species distribution models has shown that the prevailing climate is just right for devils across south eastern Australia. According to this modelling, places like Wilson's Promontory and Barrington Tops might be perfect homes for Devils.

The former range of the Tasmanian devil. Source: Rewilding Australia

The former range of the Tasmanian devil.
Source: Rewilding Australia

The potential climatic range of the Tasmanian devil. Source: based on  Hunter et al. (2015)

The potential climatic range of the Tasmanian devil. Source: based on Hunter et al. (2015)

2. Devils need More insurance populations

The species needs insurance populations that are disease-free, simply so that the devil’s survival is ensured. Captive breeding programs have been the saviours of species many times over, but they can sometimes struggle to emulate the experiences of living in the wild. As the saying goes; ‘there’s no place like home.’ A wild, disease-free population will maintain the instincts and behaviours required for survival, as well as providing another source of genetic diversity for the species. These two things will be vital when the time comes to help build the Tasmanian population back up to historical levels.

Indeed, there’s evidence that Devil introductions or reintroductions can occur successfully.  A couple of years ago, a population of devils was established on Maria Island on the east coast of Tasmania. This is the first time devils have existed on the island and there’s every indication that individuals cope with moving houses, with little harm on existing native wildlife. 

Are captive populations enough to keep the devil going? Photo: Jay Town

Are captive populations enough to keep the devil going? Photo: Jay Town

3. Devils may help balance our ecosystems

Where they persist, Tasmanian devils are apex predators. They are typically quite timid and prefer carrion, but their mere presence in the environment can scare smaller species away, creating a ‘landscape of fear.’ Not dissimilar to the neighbours cat being terrified of your
otherwise lovely Jack Russell. They are capable of keeping grazing animals like rabbits down, allowing vegetation to do well. 

Perhaps more importantly, recent research has suggested that devils can also disrupt feral cat behaviour. This may mean that the devil could shield endangered prey species from predation, which has immense conservation benefit. Some recent computer modeling also supports this suggestion, even predicting that devils may scare foxes away, too.

Could the Tasmanian devil fill the same ecological role as the dingo, as explained here? Made by Daniel Hunter (Hunted Films) 

4. There's scientific and public support for a trial 

A recent public survey by Rewilding Australia found that, of over 400 respondents, 85% supported a trial reintroduction of Tasmanian devils to the mainland, whilst another 13% suggested they could be persuaded if presented with enough evidence. There's also strong scientific backing for a trial to occur in Victoria, with scientists from Deakin University, University of NSW and the University of Tasmania in support.  

Any proposed reintroduction will need to be a well thought out and planned exercise. Returning the Tasmanian devil to its original home, such as Wilson's Promontory, has real potential to not only help secure a species, but also provide greater benefits on an ecosystem scale. There will be tensions that need to be addressed, but ultimately the pros outweigh the cons to the point where reintroducing the Devil needs to be considered, such as the proposal outlined by Zoos Victoria in their Conservation Master Plan. With a dying population due to DFTD, proactive and innovative solutions are required. So, perhaps it’s time to welcome the devil back to its ancient home and recreate a thriving ecosystem. 

Cover image supplied by Catherine Cavallo

Billy Geary
Billy is the Science & Conservation Editor at Wild Melbourne. He is a wildlife ecologist interested in predator-prey interactions and invasive species management.

You can find him on Twitter: @billy_geary