Alex Rübel

Former Director of Zurich Zoo


Dr Alex Rübel, a veterinarian by training, was the director of the Zoo Zürich between 1991 and 2020. During this period, the role and model of the Zoo Zürich and other zoos around the world has changed strongly. For one part, there has been a shift towards an ecosystem view, showing the public how species integrate in their natural environments, instead of isolated in a cage. In addition, their educational mission has become increasingly connected with active conservation efforts - both inside and outside the walls of the zoo

Since 1995, the Zoo Zürich has been involved in the protection and recovery of Madagascar’s wildlife, which includes a strong support of and involvement with the Masoala National Park in Madagascar. Several related projects, focused on the park itself and on the local communities around it, have been carried out in the region with local and international partners (as detailed in the Zoo’s project page).

1. Which main lessons can be taken from the Zoo’s long experience in Madagascar in these topics? And which challenges, setbacks and mistakes should be considered in similar efforts?

Places where we have involved the villages in the reforestation work have been very successful. Still, we are heavily challenged by the extraction of rosewood and ebony in the region. This is primarily driven by town barons from the nearby towns, not as much by the locals. The amounts of money involved are huge and long-term sustainability reasons are outplayed. The project has shown that, to counteract this problem, it is necessary that local people can also profit reasonably from the remaining forest and are convinced of the need to keep the forest for their livelihood in the long-term.

2. In your opinion, what is necessary to make these results sustainable?

There is never a project with never-ending funding. Ways have to be found so that local people can realize how valuable the ecological services provided by the forests are for their own wealth. Education is therefore the primary issue in the villages.

3. How much will the continued involvement from non-local people, including the Zoo Zürich, remain a critical factor?

Stopping the slash-and-burn agriculture practices, one of the main threats in the region, is a cultural issue and cultural changes are a generational project. This makes it necessary to follow-up from the outside for the time-span of a generation.

4. From your experience: which conditions are necessary if you want to promote or support solutions where the local populations can help themselves and at the same time contribute to the restoration and sustainable use of local ecosystems? Which role should external parties have and which obstacles should be considered?

External intervention only helps if ways are found where locals see an economical benefit for themselves. Beside their value in a larger conservation context, keeping the forest and reforestation efforts need to bring an economical value to the local population. To make sure that this value is sustainably used, there is a need for giving the villages ownership over forest use. These schemes can be brought in from outside along with successful examples. Finally, locals need to be convinced of the help being given. This is sometimes not easy when other high unsustainable short-term income (often through illegal activities, like hardwood extraction or mining) overrun the long-term interest of preserving the forests.

5. Looking past the Zoo’s involvement in Madagascar, do you see other topics and regions/countries which are under-served and are waiting for similar efforts or simply present good opportunities for intervention?

Many areas declared as conservation areas are not managed. Therefore, they lack any protection from deforestation and there is also no outlook for reforestation at all.