By: Dr. Judy Mann, Two Oceans Aquarium Foundation, SAAMBR, IZE
I was privileged to attend the 77th WAZA Annual Conference in Tenerife, Canary Islands on October 23-27th. Attended by more than 250 delegates from over 55 countries, this was the largest international gathering of zoo and aquarium professionals in the world. The gathering, the first face-to-face conference since 2019, was as much a reunion of friends as a formal conference. Exchanging hugs and smiles, looking individuals in the eye as we discussed issues of importance, sharing a laugh together over a drink, all these little moments reminded us of what we have missed. Virtual conferences have a critical role to play in the future, as we question the contradiction of flying halfway around the world to discuss topics relating to biodiversity loss and sustainability. However, we also realise that some of our connections cannot be made over a Zoom call and that an element of face-to-face contact is essential to maintain those bonds of friendship and support.
Takeaway 1 – The WAZA community is strong, and the sense of support and desire to share was palpable. Future conference hosts will need to work out how to facilitate personal connections and the opportunity to network without an excessive impact on the planet.
The capacity of WAZA to lead on topics such as animal welfare and care, population management, sustainability, and conservation was evident. The WAZA 2023 Animal Welfare Goal is on track and a revised Code of Ethics was discussed. Both long-term initiatives are bearing fruit and demonstrate the commitment of WAZA members to these critical aspects of our work. Zoos and aquariums can only achieve their conservation goals if they are built on a solid foundation of accredited animal welfare and wise ethics. Conservation and sustainability featured throughout the conference. A new Palm Oil App PalmOil Scan – Apps on Google Play was launched, as was the new WAZA Carbon Guide A Guide: Reducing, Measuring and Offsetting Carbon – WAZA. Both initiatives represent an enormous amount of work by the smaller sub-committees.
Takeaway 2 – Animal welfare, population management, conservation, and sustainability are critical pillars on which the future of zoos and aquariums rest. The WAZA Council and committees work hard to produce resources to help the community, however, we need better communication to ensure that these resources are more widely used.
The capacity of WAZA to network and capitalise on partnerships was demonstrated in several sessions. The Reverse the Red team presented a summary of the campaign through a series of panel discussions. This generated lively discussion and widespread support for this new movement to reverse biodiversity loss. The partner feedback session featured presentations from organisations ranging from the IUCN Species Survival Commission, the Amphibian Ark, the Conservation Planning Specialist Group of the IUCN, Wild Welfare, Species360, and the International Zoo Educators Association.
Takeaway 3 – By building partnerships and leveraging the power of collaboration, WAZA will more effectively achieve ambitious goals related to animal welfare and conservation, and contribute towards global conservation efforts.
In a changing world, issues of diversity and inclusion are increasingly important, and these topics were addressed in various sessions. A panel discussion on how to become more inclusive in the workplace and with visitors elicited much conversation. The WAZA Council has been working on a new Strategic Plan for several months. At the conference, delegates were again given an opportunity to comment on the strategy. One of the overarching themes of the strategy is global diversity and inclusion and ways to truly achieve this were discussed throughout the conference.
Takeaway 4 – The WAZA community is committed to embracing diversity and to ensuring that membership is truly representative of globally diverse accredited zoos and aquariums.
The conference ended on a high – with a lovely gala dinner held in the hotel gardens. At the dinner, the WAZA community celebrated the achievements of their members. Radosław Ratajszcak, Director Emeritus of Zoo Wrocław, was awarded the prestigious Heini Hediger Award to recognise his tremendous contributions to WAZA, to Polish zoos, and to the global zoo and aquarium community. His work in modernising and improving the standards of zoos has helped shape current zoos, and his influence goes beyond the zoo world through his involvement in in situ conservation internationally, where he promoted local conservation of critically endangered species.
The WAZA Conservation Award was presented to the Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute Center for Avian Health in the Galapagos Islands for their work on habitat and disease management, through the integrated One Health approach, as well as the use of training and legislative actions, all undertaken with local conservation agencies. Marwell Wildlife, United Kingdom, was awarded the Environment Sustainability Award for their innovative and consistent approach towards sustainability management. Their clear long-term targets and commitments in reducing their use of carbon and water, and waste management provides inspiration to others.
Takeaway 5 – WAZA members are a passionate and diverse but close-knit community. We have shared highs and lows over the last five years. But WAZA and its members are emerging stronger and more focussed than ever before. The challenges ahead are enormous, but we are committed to doing what needs to be done to help save the incredible diversity of species who share this planet with us, and upon which our survival depends.
Enormous thanks to the hosts, Loro Parque, the WAZA Staff and especially their leader Dr. Martin Zordan!