Environmental Enrichment refers to the naturalization of animals’ exterior habitats as an effective tool to promote and ensure the conservation of species in zoos.
As part of what constitutes the conservation of wild animals ex situ in zoos, environmental enrichment has become an essential instrument for improving the quality of life of each animal in its exterior enclosure, and in many cases in interior facilities and shelters as well.
This simple formula will help the visitor quickly visualise why we need enrichment in zoos and wildlife parks:
Enrichment = quality of life = improved wellbeing = reproduction
Ex situ conservation
Environmental enrichment consists of providing each species, in its enclosure, with the natural biotic and abiotic elements which reproduce, as far as possible, its natural environment in order to avoid any aberrant or unnatural behaviour.
The purpose of environmental enrichment is to induce and encourage the most natural possible behaviour in the animal; in this way, it is kept busy and diverted to prevent the appearance of stereotypical behaviour symptomatic of boredom, which leads to continuous stress and the potential emergence of a pathology that could damage its health. The correct environmental enrichment of a facility, apart from encouraging natural behaviour in the animal, is an extremely valuable tool for achieving conservation objectives, as by providing the animal with a habitat as closely adapted as possible to its natural state we optimize the possibility of reproduction and perpetuation of the species.
There are a series of considerations that need to be taken into account when it comes to enriching the enclosure in which each species will be permanently living and, we hope, breeding. The key factors for guaranteeing the right type of enrichment, i.e. adapting naturally to the ecological profile of each species, are:
• Drawing up an ecological profile of the species (knowledge of its history and evaluation of its primary and secondary environmental needs) in order to enrich its enclosure: by knowing its natural history, we know its needs in terms of habitat, terrain topography, soil type, hard or soft substrate, humidity and temperature conditions, the type of refuge for hiding or sleeping, how much water to provide, whether to install rocks and trunks, whether it needs shade or strong sun, etc.
• Determining the useable surface area of the exterior enclosure and the nature and quantity of naturalization elements that need to be installed.
• If the animals spend a large part of the day in the water, a facility of the right size needs to be designed so they can partially or fully submerge themselves.
• Selecting the additional elements (by type and size) that relate to the size of the installation.
• Naturalization of the installation: seeking the formula or combination of elements that best or most closely represent part of their natural habitat, and getting it to resemble that habitat as closely as possible when adding and positioning the different elements (trees, trunks – whether fallen or superimposed – trunks alternating with rocks, earth mounds, ditches, areas of denser vegetation, predominance of high or low grasses, etc.) until achieving the most accurate possible reproduction of their natural environment.
• Permanent monitoring of the animals’ behaviour, noting any behavioural anomalies.
• Analysing and studying any anomalies.
• Correcting the anomalies caused by external environmental factors.
Following these key points it is possible to create better, more appropriate and habitable living conditions for the animals in our installations, and also change the viewing public’s perception and appreciation of them.