Improving the wellbeing and conservation value of captive great apes


A huge problem in great ape conservation is that zoos and sanctuaries lack the scientific framework needed to encourage the natural behavioural profiles needed for optimum wellbeing and to ensure sanctuaries can successfully prepare them for life back in the wild. 

We have developed interventions so zoos and sanctuaries can ensure their chimpanzees and orangutans have to solve similar physical and mental problems to their wild cousins on a daily basis. These are being used by some of the largest orangutan sanctuaries that are rehabilitating orangutans rescued from the exotic pet trade for release back into the wild.

Plus, we have created a Great Ape Welfare group with the UK zoo sector’s professional body BIAZA to generate research-led improvements in welfare, husbandry and policy inter-linked with conservation and research. 

Video: Great Ape Conservation 

Great Apes Conservation

Researchers at the University of Birmingham are working with zoos and sanctuaries to ensure their chimpanzees and orangutans behave like wild populations.


About the project

A major barrier to the success of ex-situ great ape conservation is that zoos and sanctuaries lack a scientific framework to encourage natural behavioural profiles needed to optimise wellbeing and for sanctuaries to rehabilitate apes for reintroduction to the wild.

We developed the Enclosure Design Tool (EDT) as an intervention to enable zoos and sanctuaries to improve great ape wellbeing by identification of absent or under-represented wild-type behaviours in their animals, and linked guidance in modifying enclosures to elicit these behaviours. We worked in partnership with Myatt (Lecturer) for her expertise on the dynamics of social groups; BIAZA (British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums: the professional body for UK Zoos) and four of the leading UK zoos for great apes (Twycross Zoo, Chester Zoo; Paignton Zoo, Blair Drummond Zoo).

Developing the chimpanzee EDT showed that by replicating the mechanical challenges that great apes experience in the wild (rather than ones that look natural) zoos can substantially improve the expression of natural behavioural profiles, within their typical budgetary, space and husbandry constraints.

An EDT was developed for rehabilitant sanctuary orangutans and applied to adult males (2017) that were permanently in cages because they were too aggressive or large to complete the rehabilitation process with other orangutans (and whose chances of release were consequently low). Results showed that they could be sufficiently prepared for release by applying the EDT process to their cages. 

Roll out of the EDT to sanctuary chimpanzees showed that, in addition to encouraging more natural behavioural profiles, the EDT significantly reduced aggression and the frequency of attacks that arise because sanctuaries must care for chimpanzee groups made from unrelated (rather than family) individuals, and that have too many adult males. 

The team are now looking at how a similar EDT could be applied to captive parrots. Starting with three species, scarlet macaw (Ara macao), African grey parrot (Psittacus erithacus) and swift parrot (Lathamus discolor), the parrot EDT will follow the same steps as for the great apes: assessing current behavioural repertoires, modifying enclosures to address missing behaviours and evaluating whether the modifications worked. This will help maintaining a wild-type repertoire of behaviours in captive parrots, both in short-term (e.g. rehabilitation and release programmes) and long-term captivity (e.g. zoo breeding programmes).

Find out more about the EDT programme


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