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Are animals in cages a necessary evil?

By Jenni Watts, CNN
November 6, 2013 -- Updated 1756 GMT (0156 HKT)
orangutan in captivity sumatra
orangutan in captivity sumatra
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • There are more Sumatran tigers in captivity than live in the wild
  • Keeping animals in sanctuaries can serve an important purpose, says Jenni Watts
  • They help people learn about animals and inspire fundraising efforts
  • Without action all endangered species will have to live behind bars

On November 6 at 1030 GMT watch "Expedition: Sumatra," a half-hour feature program with CNN Special Correspondent Philippe Cousteau

(CNN) -- Keeping Sumatran tigers, orangutans and elephants in captivity is not an ideal situation. These animals should be in the wild. The problem is, their habitat is dwindling to such a low level, and it's often safer for the animals to live in captivity. The habitat for critically endangered Sumatran tigers has dwindled so much and poaching is such a large threat that there are more Sumatran tigers in captivity than live in the wild. As the number of tigers decrease, the captive tigers are the species' only hope for survival.

There are those animals living in captivity that can't be released back into the wild. These are animals with diseases or defects like tigers that were rescued from poacher's snares. Many of these tigers are missing paws and parts of their legs. In the wild, they would have difficulty finding food and escaping danger. In this case, the tigers are put in zoos or sanctuaries like Taman Safari Indonesia featured in Expedition: Sumatra.

Fence separates wildlife, civilization
Scare gun keeps elephants at bay

Read more: The battle to save Sumatra's elephants

Animals in sanctuaries like this can serve an important purpose. They are ambassadors of their kind, educators of sorts for people to learn about them. The more people know about these animals and hear about the problems these animals face in the wild, the less likely they will want to kill them or destroy their habitat. The animals also inspire fundraising for the important work conservationist groups are doing to preserve these species.

Captive animals also have another important role. In the wild, as populations decline, animals start to mate with their close relatives creating problems associated with inbreeding. When sanctuaries and zoos breed these animals, they make sure to do it with the genetic diversity of the species in mind. It is all a proactive approach that could prevent the extinction of the species.

Read more: The final days of the Sumatran tiger?

We humans are at war with ourselves and it's a war the endangered Sumatran wildlife is slowing losing.

It's the sad truth that humans are causing and trying to the problem of animal population loss. Some of us are turning the rainforest into giant palm oil plantations and some of us are working to save that rainforest. Some of us are killing the tigers to sell their skins and some of us are taking care of disabled baby tigers in captivity to make sure the species doesn't go extinct. We humans are at war with ourselves and it's a war the endangered Sumatran wildlife is slowing losing.

Without some kind of action to stop poaching and habitat loss, the critically endangered Sumatran elephants, orangutans and tigers will slowly and quietly decline. These once majestic species will only be seen behind a barrier at a zoo. Eventually, the species will go extinct. That's what conservationists at sanctuaries and zoos as well as non-profit groups like WWF are pushing so hard to stop. Education through the animal ambassadors in captivity is one way to help reverse the trend and hopefully save the species from irradiation.

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