Habitat-Based Conservation and Financial Stability: A Conversation with Simon Tonge, Director of the

Over the past two decades, the Paignton Zoo Environmental Park in Devon, England has evolved into a world-class zoo devoted to making a difference for wildlife. The zoo is part of South West Environmental Parks LTD, which also runs the Newquay Zoo in Cormwall. Much of the zoo's success is owed to its director Simon Tonge. He has significantly elevated the zoo's animal wellness practices, research, insitu conservation and business operations. Additionally, Tonge has served as president of both British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZa). Here is his story.

@ Paignton Zoo

After graduating from college, Simon Tonge got hired by the Jersey Zoo. “I wrote to virtually every UK zoo director asking I could have a job,” he recalled. “The only one who got back to me was Jersey, who said their reptile keeper had just resigned. I was one of very few people [in my class] who was going to go on and have a career practically working with animals.” The experience proved to be an important one. “It was an amazing experience and we felt we were on a mission to save the world,” Tonge looked back. “Many of us went on to become directors, a testament to what they instilled in us.”

@ Jersey Zoo

Mark Smith @ Jersey Zoo

The Jersey Zoo, the headquarters of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, is renowned for its extensive involvement with conservation. “The zoo is very much at the forefront of conservation work and we were encouraged to study our animals, write about them, read everything ever published on them and do fieldwork in other parts of the world,” Tonge said. “I focused on species in Mauritius and we set up breeding programs for round island boas and geckos. It was a great privilege to be involved in that.”

@ Jersey Zoo

@ Jersey Zoo

Tonge spent then two years being trained in accounting. “I learned stuff that was incredibly useful from a career perspective,” he articulated. “Whether we like it or not, money is the most important thing in the world so you have to learn how to manage it.” After finishing his accounting training, Tonge became Senior Curator at the London Zoo in 1993. “The zoo had just been through a period of turmoil and the task was to help rebuild confidence in the zoo,” he commented. “We tried to take the whole zoo forward. I learned so much during my seven years at London.”

@ ZSL

@ ZSL

In 2000, Simon Tonge became Executive Director of the Paignton Zoo, owned by the Whitley Wildlife Conservation Trust. “Having been at London for seven years, the next logical step was for me to become the director of a zoo somewhere,” he elaborated. “It was always my ambition to do so. Paignton Zoo was advertised, I put my hat in the ring and I was fortunate enough to get it. The zoo had gone through five years where they completely rebuilt and transformed the zoo. My predecessor took what was a failing organization and made it a successful one. The challenge was to continue that success, stabilize the organization and build on it.”

@ Paignton Zoo

@ Paignton Zoo

Tonge led the Paignton Zoo to continue to build new things. “The first thing we opened was the vet center, followed by Crocodile Swamp and Monkey Heights,” he recalled. “We also provided the headquarters for the mammal department in Monkey Heights with kitchens, rooms [and so forth.] We felt every department should work in good conditions and the mammal department used to be in small mess rooms scattered around the zoo so it was important to get them under one roof.”

@ Paignton Zoo

@ Paignton Zoo

In 2003, the WWCT purchased the Newquay Zoo in Cormwall and transformed that facility as well. “Almost overnight we became a multi-site organization, which changed the paradigm overnight,” Simon Tonge remarked. “The Newquay Zoo had been run for twenty years privately by a guy named Mike Thomas. We borrowed money from the bank and bought it. It was a very vibrant business but not much infrastructure for staff and visitors: the restaurant and cafes were small and the staff were in terrible accommodations. We’ve gradually been replacing old buildings and the first thing we did was open an improved restaurant at the front of the zoo, which makes money to do more stuff.”

@ Newquay Zoo

@ Newquay Zoo

The Newquay Zoo has continued to grow since 2003. “We made a real point to focus on plants as it’s a zoological garden,” Tonge explained. “We used to have an area of waste ground owned by the local council next to us and we were able to add that to the zoo. We built a savanna exhibit there and opened Gems of the Jungle, a Southeastern Asian bird aviary. That lets us talk about the songbird crisis in Southeast Asia.”

@ Newquay Zoo

@ Newquay Zoo

The Paignton Zoo has emerged as a leader in international conservation. “You have to have the personal belief as a chief executive that the zoo is about conservation and that’s what we’re trying to do,” Simon Tonge reflected. “We’re not just a zoo as we have a host of field programs. Zoos are just one part of what I’m in charge with. When I started my career in 1980, we all thought we’d save the world by breeding rare animals while now we know that’s just a small part.”

@ Paignton Zoo

SJ Fisher @ Paignton Zoo

“Zoos are now about educating and inspiring people,” Tonge continued. “You’ve got to make people feel comfortable about what they’re coming to see. You’ve got to get them to understand the animals in the zoo are happy in the broad sense, behaving properly and well cared for. You have to build a culture where that matters.”

Brian Lilly @ Paignton Zoo

@ Paignton Zoo

The Paignton Zoo has invested heavily in animal welfare resources. “We have an extensive conservation research department here that provides animal welfare advice, creates new animal enrichment and assesses animal behavior,” Tonge explained. “We do a lot of training so we can do things that make their life richer and our life easier. We have the right skills and education to do that and empowered people to do the very best they can.”

@ Paignton Zoo

Brian Lilly @ Paignton Zoo

“I would argue our field conservation program is one of the best in the country,” Simon Tonge claimed. “We’ve got six major projects around the world. We do a lot of work in Devon and own the largest freshwater lake in Southwestern England. We also have a project in Indonesia that initially focused on macaques but has broadened out to community support. We work in Vietnam on civets and pangolins, in Southwestern Nigeria on forest elephants and in Zimbabwe on black and white rhinos. We also have a project in Tanzania looking at small antelope and amphibians. We recently employed a guy there to do anti-poaching work and train rangers.”

@ Paignton Zoo

@ Paignton Zoo

“We’ve gradually moved away from species-based conservation to habitat-based conservation,” Tonge noted. “We’re looking at preserving habitats as that’s where we see the real conservation crisis and feel we our work can make the most difference.”

@ Paignton Zoo

@ Paignton Zoo

Important to the Paignton Zoo’s success has been financial stability. “In recent years, we’ve been able to get the zoo into the best financial shape it’s ever been in,” Simon Tonge stated. “We’re a charity but have to think like a business. We think strategically and make decisions like a business. We don’t get any operating support from the city or state- we wouldn’t want it. We rely on our own devices so we have to think carefully about how we spent money. All our staff understand that. We need to continue to offer the quality visitor and animal experience.”

@ Paignton Zoo

@ Paignton Zoo

The Paignton Zoo cares about what visitors take out of a zoo visit. “What value going to the zoo has is difficult to prove,” Tonge articulated. “Museums have the same problem as it’s hard to prove exactly what comes away from a visit. It’s going to be very interesting to see the results of a study one of our PhD students is doing on this. We’re starting to ask those questions and understand what people are taking away from their visit. Our research is not just animal related but also social science. In conservation education, people are the problem and the solution so we need to engage with those subjects and develop their thinking.”

Brian @ Paignton Zoo

@ Paignton Zoo

In 2020, the Paignton Zoo is hoping to open an African savanna featuring giraffes, zebras, white rhinos and antelope. “We have them all in separate paddocks and want to create the illusion of them all being together,” Simon Tonge remarked. “You won’t see other visitors and will have the illusion of this being one habitat. We’ll add aardvarks and a walkthrough aviary for vultures. The key thing with these habitats is we want to do it right. We want to have top notch animal welfare and an amazing experience where visitors get up close to animals."

Brian Lilly @ Paignton Zoo

@ Paignton Zoo

Simon Tonge felt the Paignton Zoo represented the zoo of the future. “We’re going through one of these periodic patches where anti-zoo activists are thinking they’re making progress but that won’t happen as the quality of our zoos is so high they can’t point to serious animal welfare issues,” he elaborated. “There are still some bad zoos in parts of the world held back by the way zoos were managed in the past but we’re working with some of those zoos to bring them up to standard. The very best zoos are amazing places to go. People like zoos and see wonderful things. Some of the things we’ve built are incredible. Zoos have a very clear idea of what they’re trying to achieve and share a set of goals. Modern zoos are an incredible thing to come see and the world is a better place because of the work we do.”

@ Paignton Zoo

Brian Lilly @ Paignton Zoo

“I’m most proud of taking this organization from being a one site organization to a multi-site organization,” Simon Tonge concluded. “I’m proud of how our zoos look and to have been a chair of both the European and British zoo associations.”

@ Paignton Zoo

#PaigntonZoo #LondonZoo #JerseyZoo

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