A new international study of zoos and aquariums shows that these family attractions do teach the public about the delicate balance between animal species and their habitats.
Sociologist Eric Jensen from the University of Warwick worked with Andy Moss from Chester Zoo and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums (WAZA) on the largest study of its kind to assess if these facilities did achieve their public education goals.
More than 6,000 visitors to over 30 zoos and aquariums across the world took part in this landmark study. Participants filled out pre- and post-visit surveys to evaluate their biodiversity understanding and knowledge of how to help protect biodiversity.
The study found there was an increase from pre-visit (69.8%) to post-visit (75.1%) in respondents demonstrating some positive evidence of biodiversity understanding.
Researchers also found an increase from pre-visit (50.5%) to post-visit (58.8%) in respondents who could identify something they could do individually to help protect biodiversity.
Dr Eric Jensen is an internationally recognized expert on public engagement with wildlife. He is author of the forthcoming book From Conservation Education to Public Engagement: Research, Principles and Practice.
Dr Jensen said: "This study offers the first large-scale international evidence that zoos and aquariums can effectively engage their visitors with biodiversity. This question of educational impact has loomed over zoos and aquariums for decades. Our findings indicate that zoos and aquariums are right to tout their potential as sites for engagement with wildlife, although some of these attractions are clearly more effective than others.
"This positive finding that zoo and aquarium visits worldwide generate significant gains in public biodiversity knowledge aligns with my previous research at London Zoo and Durrell Wildlife Park (Jersey Zoo)'
Co-author Andy Moss, Education Research Officer at Chester Zoo and Associate Fellow at the University of Warwick said: "Critics have rightly questioned the lack of evidence supporting the educational claims of zoos and aquariums. In demonstrating the positive educational impacts that a zoo or aquarium visit can facilitate, this study goes a long way in answering those critics. The significant improvement in visitor biodiversity knowledge shows that zoos and aquariums can be important public providers of education that is also meaningful to global conservation initiatives, such as the United Nations Decade on Biodiversity."
The report 'A Global Evaluation of Biodiversity Literacy in Zoo and Aquarium Visitors' is available here : http://www.waza.org/en/site/conservation/un-decade-on-biodiversity/visitor-survey
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