A mechanised cheetah

Zoos of the future

Could we be visiting robotic lions, extinct species resurrected through cloning technology and even genetically engineered hybrid animals in our future zoos?

In the 1970s, the young 'Star Trek' fans, who watched Captain Kirk and Mr Spock use handheld communicators, also saw lions, rhinos and giraffes standing around in zoos and wildlife parks. Today, those grown up Trekkies use mobile phones and webcams, while lions, rhinos and giraffes are still standing around in pretty much the same zoo enclosures.

Some zoos spend millions designing habitats that look a bit like the animals' natural environment. In Hannover Zoo, hippos wallow in a mock Zambezi and the Addax enclosure is modelled on the antelope's Sahara habitat. Woodland Heart Zoo in Seattle is another that favours immersion exhibits. So too, St Louis.

But most zoos still put on the same show as London Zoo did when it opened in 1828. Bigger enclosures, more care taken of the animals and more interactive 'keeper-for-a-day' type experiences, maybe. But still essentially the same drill. You walk, you gawp and then you move on to do some more gawping. Unless the animals are hiding from the rain, that is. Then it's just grass, trees and rocks.

According to a group of zoo professionals and researchers at an international conference, zoos of the future will be high-tech affairs. At the 'Symposium on the Future of Zoos', held at Canisius College in Buffalo, New York in February 2012, these experts made some startling predictions. Robots will replace animals, zoos will design Jurassic Park-style open habitats where people are caged and animals roam, and visitors will be able to do a Dr Doolittle and use brainwave reading devices to talk to apes and dolphins. Sounds like a zoo worth visiting.

"Try and imagine a robot so lifelike that it actually moves as well as looks, like the animal," says Michael Noonan, biology professor at Canisius College. "Lions, elephants and hippos indistinguishable from living animals."

At the moment, robot animals look like robots, not animals. Some, like the Robot Zoo, a travelling exhibition that helps children explore animal biomechanics, look more like school science experiments.

Japanese company NSK has a robot guide dog, but it's more K-9 than Lassie. Festo's remote-controlled SMART bird is modelled on a herring gull but looks like a 1970s plastic mobile for children. The US navy has a hydrogen-powered robot jellyfish for surveillance, which looks like a 1970s 'Doctor Who' prop, and the University of Bristol's shrewbot uses active touch sensors, or whiskers, to move around, but looks like something out of 'Robot Wars'.

Realistic animal robots

Noonan explains that to get a realistic animal robot, you've got to make the animal look right. "That's the easy part; Hollywood has some great designers and make-up artists, who could already do this," he says, adding that the servo-tech needed to allow a robot to move in a smooth, realistic fashion, is just around the corner. "In years, rather than decades, technology will be able to give robots the same fine motor control that a live animal has." This won't be easy. Monkeys and lemurs are incredibly agile, cheetahs – lithe and flexible, and you haven't seen fast until you've seen a stoat or a weasel.

Developing software sophisticated enough to programme the robot to act like its live counterpart might take a little longer, Noonan admits. "It's not just the animal's range of movement you have to simulate, it's also their unpredictability," he says. That and how to reproduce the instinctive way real animals react to stimuli in their environment.

One day, health and safety will be all over zoos. A lion will eat some reckless dope fiend after he climbs into the cage convinced that the beast is the physical manifestation of his star sign, Leo. Or, parents will bring a 'no win no fee' court case against a zoo claiming that their child contracted the SARS virus after being sneezed on by a monkey.

Should something like this happen, the grey suits will descend on zoos like a plague of locusts. Noonan believes that robot animals would checkmate the health and safety mafia before they'd even had a chance to get their clipboards out.

"You could walk through a rainforest exhibit alongside the animals, with no fear of being attacked," he says. Unless, of course, some future techno-nerd downloaded an attack virus into a hyenabot's software. "You could watch a jaguar going for a swim in a South American rainforest or an ocelot sloping along in an African jungle, and you'd be totally safe."

Genetically engineered

Noonan believes that we could see realistic robot animals within 20 years, although whether or not many zoos will have enough money to buy them is another matter.

Some people visit zoos to look at animals they've never seen before, the more novel the better. Noonan envisages a time where genetic engineering will have advanced to such a point where scientists can create hybrid animals: mice with wings, snakes with feathers, cyborg elephants. As long as the scientists ignore the ethics of messing around with nature, that is.

Others visit zoos because they love animals and want to connect with them. Not enough to go out into the wild, where it's cold, wet and there's a chance that they might get eaten, obviously. And not enough to realise that by visiting zoos they're supporting inappropriate captivity as well as conservation efforts. The British Wildlife Centre in Surrey, for instance, has rare pine martens and endangered wildcats. But they also have captive buzzards, mink and badgers – animals that are plentiful in Britain.

According to Noonan, though, there is something coming to zoos that will wow both rubberneckers and animal lovers.

Cloned creatures

Not dinosaurs, we don't have the DNA samples and there are no close relatives to act as surrogates, but Noonan can see more recently extinct animals – thylacines, dodos and mammoths – making a comeback.

"These are animals that might still have existing habitats and ecological niches on Earth," Noonan says. "You could even argue that we have an ethical obligation to bring back animals that were driven to extinction by humans."

Opinion is divided as to whether we'll see a live mammoth any time soon. Frost destroys some, if not all, of the DNA inside mammoths that have been dug out of the Siberian permafrost, but some say elephant DNA could fill in the gaps. Others believe elephant DNA could be re-written into mammoth DNA. Scientists have mapped the mammoth genome, but they don't have enough information to re-create it. Harvard University is developing technology that might one day allow scientists to rewrite vast swathes of DNA. Japanese researchers have already managed to clone mice from specimens that had been frozen 16 years ago.

"Even if it is technically possible to produce an egg from an extinct animal, the animal that grows from it will lack the digestive bacteria and fungus to obtain nutrients from food," says Jeff Yule, from Louisiana Tech University, who spoke on cloning at the 2012 Symposium. In 2009, a cloned Pyrenean Ibex, extinct since 2000, died of lung failure not long after birth. Many other cloned animals have had similar problems.

Yule is concerned that people might view cloning as a technological challenge without thinking through the implications. "An Indian elephant would make an ideal surrogate for a mammoth embryo," he says, "but Indian elephants themselves are endangered, and with no certainty of the birth being successful, would we really want to risk some of these animals not going through a pregnancy?"

Cloning, Yule believes, should be a pretext for releasing a species back into the wild, not just a way of providing cool new exhibits for zoos to make money. He explains that there's no point resurrecting passenger pigeons if the bird's North American forest habitat has gone. "Mammoths were social animals like elephants, it would be morally wrong to clone a single mammoth and raise it in isolation," he adds.

Conservation action

Alasdair Davies, conservation technology adviser with the Zoological Society of London, is unimpressed by the thought of putting robot animals in zoos and bringing back extinct species. "It sends the message that it's OK for people to continue what they are doing, destroying wildlife," he says. "It's like telling people that it's all right if rhinos go extinct, because we can bring them back. It's not OK; we need to conserve what we have, not worry about bringing back what has gone. We want real tigers, not robots of an animal that used to exist."

While Yule sees future zoos working more closely with universities and other research organisations, for Davies, a zoo's conservation role will remain paramount, as more and more animals near extinction. He's looking into capturing live wilderness footage and sending it, real time, back to London Zoo. At the moment, ZSL only has the technology to recreate still images on a mobile phone via the app Instant Wild. With increased funding, live video footage would be possible and, one day, maybe even a whole virtual reality jungle or plain.

"Globally, 21 per cent of known mammals are threatened with extinction – and that's only the ones we know about," he says. Davies explains that ZSL is working to identify where urgent conservation actions are necessary.

In Africa, ZSL works with locals to find alternatives to the bush meat trade and forest clearing for agriculture. They are helping restore habitat in the Sahara desert, a region that has lost more of its animals and birds than any other part of Africa, Europe or Asia in the recent past. Gorillas and chimpanzees in Cameroon and Gabon, cheetahs and wild dogs in the south, and black rhinos in the east are all the subject of ZSL conservation programmes.

So too is the forest elephant. Smaller than its plains relative and with straighter tusks, this elephant is threatened by the bush meat trade, poachers looking for ivory and clearing of its forest homes for agriculture and wood. These elephants often wander into areas surrounding farms and villages. ZSL conservationists are working with locals to identify migration corridors, where elephants can freely move between patches of forest.

The fight against extinction

Africa has many ecosystems. The Atlas Mountains in the north, the vast Sahara Desert, dense tropical forests in the west and central regions, the rangelands of east and southern Africa, the snowcapped peaks of the Ruwenzori in central Africa. A lot for conservationists to cover.

"It's incredibly important to know when a species on the verge of extinction can still be found in a particular area, so action can be taken instantly," Davies says. "Overcoming the challenge of, first, finding them and, second, photographing and identifying them, is the key to success if we are to initiate conservation actions and conserve these species," he adds.

Davies explains that conservationists use camera traps to capture photographs of rare and endangered wildlife. The cameras are triggered by the animal's movement or body heat. But many animals live in remote and inhospitable places and, in some parts, camera traps won't do the job.

With this particular problem in mind, ZSL is looking at how next-generation, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) might monitor and explore inaccessible environments. UAVs that can fly autonomously, without a pilot, for long periods of time. With Microsoft and the University College London, ZSL hopes to find new, natural ways, for such drones to self-refuel using natural resources from within their environment.

"Drones like these could theoretically live within the environment indefinitely," Davies says. "Fitted with a camera, the drone could send live footage from the middle of a jungle, places where, because of the dense canopies and undergrowth, it is very difficult to get even aerial shots of what is going on."

He adds: "These drones could identify potential poachers, or people behaving suspiciously, take photos as evidence and send messages back to a command centre from where rangers can be dispatched to deal with the threat immediately."

Once again, cash is the problem. "We need technology companies to think beyond military applications for their new innovations," Davies says.

In the future, cloning endangered species, rather than extinct ones, might be more ecologically acceptable, if not as commercially viable. Edinburgh University and the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland have set up the Institute for the Breeding of Rare and Endangered African Mammals. Here, they hope to use cloning technology and other breeding programmes to preserve northern white rhinos, Ethiopian wolves, pygmy hippos and many other endangered animals.

The Natural History Museum and ZSL have collected thousands of DNA samples from endangered animals. Conservationists hope that, in the future, advances in cloning technology will mean these creatures can be brought back should they ever disappear.

The project is called Frozen Ark. The problem is thousands more people would turn up to see a modern day Noah unveil a mammoth than bring out a pygmy hippo. And technology tends to follow the money, not the worthy idea.

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