ZSL faces existential challenge in wake of coronavirus crisis

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ZSL's Director General, Dominic Jermey, addresses the impact of COVID-19 on our future.

Britain is a world leader in developing the vaccines that are needed to combat COVID-19, pouring resources into applying the scientific expertise of our finest institutions in a race against time. But the zoological answer to the pandemic is a different story.

ZSL Director General, Dominic Jermey

This is a time when humanity needs to understand more about what in the natural world drives viruses to jump species from wildlife to people. But a lack of funding leaves the Zoological Society of London’s (ZSL) world-leading expertise in the science of wildlife health and managing zoonotic disease in serious jeopardy.

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ZSL and its iconic zoos – London and Whipsnade - have been the crucible in which mankind’s understanding of the natural world has been forged for nearly 200 years. ZSL is where Darwin and Huxley developed much of their thinking. Where Sir David Attenborough cut his teeth as a wildlife TV presenter. Where millions have been inspired with a love for wildlife. 

Yet the impact of COVID-19 means ZSL – whose income relies on zoo visitors - finds itself in an unthinkable position. With its zoos shut to the public, the future of this iconic national institution, with all its science and global conservation, hangs in the balance. You can’t simply mothball a zoo and furlough all the staff to save money - our 20,000 giraffes, tigers, lions, meerkats, penguins and other animals need us as much today as any other day. Fighting the illegal wildlife trade across Africa and Asia, a likely cause of this pandemic, can’t just stop.

COVID-19 has had devastating impact for many, across the world. Having already cut off ZSL’s income, COVID-19 dealt us a fresh blow last week, from which we are reeling. Following complex negotiations with the bank, they told us they were unable to provide the kind of major loan we need, even under the Government’s special coronavirus schemes. This is because, as a responsibly run charity investing in conservation, we do not generate the cash required to pay off bank debt. Conversations with the bank continue; they want to help. Ironically, ZSL entered this crisis with no debt and decent reserves. Without income, those reserves are dwindling and we now desperately need a significant injection of cash to help us through this COVID-19 crisis.

Three keepers observing social distancing while caring for the animals at ZSL London Zoo

Many assume a venerable institution like ZSL London Zoo receives regular government funding in the same way Kew Gardens and the Natural History Museum do. But that is not the case – ZSL’s world-leading science and conservation work is underpinned by the money we earn, with every penny put into achieving our vision of a world where wildlife thrives. 

Our scientists at the Institute of Zoology at London Zoo may hold the key to preventing future pandemics like COVID-19. Our pioneering research feeds into governments at the highest level, helping to set policy on crucial topics including infectious disease that crosses species barriers like Ebola and bovine TB. Our global network of conservationists work with local communities to bring back species from the brink of extinction and shape the understanding of how we can reverse the global loss of biodiversity. ZSL’s zoological and conservation knowledge, experience and expertise is more valuable to the UK than ever.

Two scientists wearing rubber gloves investigating a dead animal

The immense scale of the challenge facing the government is clear. The measures put in place by government to support businesses are unprecedented, including the zoo fund announced by DEFRA to support small zoos. Mechanisms like the furlough scheme make a real difference. But national institutions such as ZSL and its zoos can’t slip through the cracks. Now is the time for the UK to show its commitment to ZSL’s globally important role, before our unthinkable position becomes an untenable one. Britain must continue its longstanding global leadership in zoological discovery and scientific endeavour – ZSL can help make sure that happens.

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