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Going to see great apes in the zoo has been part of UK culture since 1835, when the first chimpanzee arrived at London Zoo. But our understanding of great apes’ natural behaviour, and thus their welfare needs while in captivity, has changed radically following decades of field studies on wild apes. This includes our own five-year study on orangutans in Indonesia. This improved knowledge has led some to question if we should continue to keep great apes in captivity.

In the wild, however, great apes are centre stage in the balance between improving the quality of human lives and living within the Earth's limits. Orangutan habitat for example is threatened by logging and palm oil plantations and mountain gorilla ranges include desirable resources such as coltan and oil. Great apes are also at risk of being killed for bushmeat or for their infants to be sold as pets. If these threats continue, great apes could be extinct across most of their natural range within a generation (IUCN). In parallel with conservation strategies, the role of zoos in holding these species for survival becomes ever more important.

A key part of the solution is for zoos to move beyond preserving a species genetic diversity to conserving the whole animal, the behavioural traits and physical adaptations that are a vital part of its ability to survive in natural habitat. At the University of Birmingham, we research how wild great apes deal with the demands of their physical and social environment to understand their behaviour, ecology and evolution. We are applying our knowledge of their locomotion, social behaviour, cultural behaviour and the cognitive abilities that underpin these systems to devise an integrated Enclosure Design Tool (EDT). This web-based tool will allow zoos to automatically compare the behaviour of their chimpanzees to wild chimpanzees, and will provide evidence-based, zoo-specific recommendations about how to modify enclosures to elicit wild-type behavioural profiles.

The constraints of captive management mean that zoo enclosures are often rather predictable and easy, so zoo apes can be more sedentary than wild animals, and, like humans, more prone to obesity and other illnesses. In contrast, natural habitats are mechanically highly complex and unpredictable. Apes need constantly to make decisions about how to deal with their environment to keep safe and get food. The EDT, therefore, focuses on replicating the mechanical behaviour, rather than the aesthetics, of tropical forest as well as the physical and mental challenges it poses for wild chimps in their daily lives.

We are working closely with Twycross Zoo as a case study to develop the EDT for chimpanzees. Together we have already made significant improvements to their chimpanzee’s activity levels and wild-type behaviours. We are also working with the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA, the representative body for UK Zoos), who will make the tool freely available to their members and those of their European counterpart EAZA. Over the next four years we will extend the EDT to all great apes species in captivity. To our knowledge this partnership will be the first in the zoo community to draw on such a range of expertise to develop and release a stand-alone tool for zoos to use themselves.

It is clear that the role of zoos is changing. As the most popular science-based visitor attraction in the UK (40 per cent of the population visit zoos and similar sites annually), they are powerful vehicles for conservation and for allowing the public to experience and learn about the rich diversity of animals on Earth. By forming closer relationships between universities and zoos and by empowering zoos with tools to translate the results of research in the field into captivity, we can develop new ways to optimise welfare.


This brief is based on the NERC-funded research programme by Dr Susannah Thorpe, Dr Jackie Chappell and Dr Julia Myatt from the School of Biosciences and Dr Claudio Tennie from the Department of Psychology.

Dr Susannah KS Thorpe (pictured)

Dr Jackie Chappell

School of Biosciences, University of Birmingham