Dr Sharon Redrobe OBE

Although Twycross Zoo is based in Leicestershire and therefore slightly out of our typical area of geographic interest; the zoo plays such an important role in the lives of so many people all across the Midlands region.

In this article, Dr Sharon Redrobe OBE (CEO, Twycross Zoo) outlines the enormous challenges facing the sector due to the pandemic and how the Government needs to urgently address the limited scope of its Zoo Animals Fund if it wants to rescue the nation’s zoos and prevent Conservation from being another of victim of COVID-19’s collateral damage.

Twycross Zoo is a conservation zoo sited in rural Leicestershire, operated through the conservation charity Twycross Zoo East Midland Zoological Society. Established in 1963, we are one of only a handful of zoos in Europe to house all 4 great apes – gorilla, orangutan, bonobo, and chimpanzee. In 2019, we attracted close to 650,000 visitors and hosted 60,000 school children; we also generated over £20M GVA to the region via job creation at site and through creating jobs as secondary accommodation and restaurants in the area, we also directly employed 150 staff.

Collectively, members of the British and Irish Association of Zoos and Aquariums (BIAZA) attract over 35 million visitors annually, employ 8,000 FTE staff, and contribute over £650 million to the economy each year. We provide a vital resource to schools, colleges and universities by hosting 1.2 million educational visits per year. In addition, Britain’s large, charitable zoos and aquariums are genuine conservation powerhouses, supporting over 800 projects in 105 countries that provide direct conservation action for 488 species of animals and plants.

At Twycross Zoo, we have very high overheads to feed and care for over 500 rare and endangered animals and it takes over £550k a month to run the zoo (animal feed, heating, staff costs).  This is entirely generated by visitors through the gate. If we close, this revenue becomes zero.


COVID-19 has had a dramatic impact on daily zoo life and continues to challenge our future viability.


The zoo closed its gates to the public when Boris Johnson imposed lockdown on the country earlier this year. We quickly introduced measures to conserve our reserves and to protect our animals and staff. Utilisation of the government furlough scheme amongst other things was quickly initiated to conserve our limited funds and to protect our animals and staff jobs.

Throughout lockdown our animals still needed to be looked after and our skeleton animal team continued to feed and care for our 500 animals. With visitor income at zero but operating costs ongoing, this had a serious impact upon our financial reserves. As a charity we have a legal obligation to hold only limited reserves at any one time with the majority returned directly into the development and running of the business.  With our gates firmly closed our visitor income ceased and our reserves started to dry up.  Twycross Zoo therefore had to review operational costs and put measures in place to conserve our reserves and to approach our bank for a Coronavirus Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CBILS).

Our gates reopened in July with Covid-secure safety measures in place and restricted daily visitor numbers. Easter through to the end of the summer is usually the time that we generate sufficient income to fund the quiet winter months when visitor income is low – however the animals still need to be fed and looked after. Limited visitor income means that our winter reserves are reduced and therefore this has meant that we have had to restructure and put our development plans on hold.


For Twycross Zoo, COVID-19 has had a devastating impact and has put a question mark upon our long-term survival.  There is now the threat of a second wave and subsequent lockdown which would impact our future security even further. We sincerely hope that we can ride through this storm and that a vaccination is available soon to bring this nightmare to an end and to stabilise the economy.  We will continue to do everything in our power to save our zoo and keep our animals safe so that our loyal visitors can share our love and passion for the natural world in a safe and COVID-secure way, but we need more support.


Despite the introduction of measures from Government such as the Job Retention Scheme, CBILS and the Zoo Animals Fund, we remain at threat of extinction as we go into the worst financial winter in memory.


So far, the Government has made £100m available through the latter, however the strict eligibility criteria has meant that many zoos and aquariums are effectively excluded from the scheme. Twycross Zoo is not eligible for any support from this fund and so we have had to seek funding in the form of loans, which of course will need to be repaid.


Joined up thinking is urgently required across government to encapsulate all the organisations and solutions that we need to address this biodiversity crisis and 6th major extinction. I call on the UK Government to recognise the role the modern charity zoo plays in this – we educate the public and fund wildlife protection in the wild, but also crucially act as Arks by breeding some (we can’t save them all, but some) previous species in a self-sustaining manner across our European Australasian and America breeding programmes.

Delivering as we are on both government and United Nations policy, why don’t UK zoos get governmental support as they do in many countries such as USA and Germany?  The Australia Zoo (COVID) fund was distributed as a grant to all zoos and not held back for those about to close unlike the vastly undersubscribed UK Zoo Fund. Government grants at the moment are aimed at short term projects – at Twycross Zoo, we are working with international colleagues to keep and breed bonobo for a 100 year timeline; the zoo population across Europe and USA means bonobo will be safe on the planet, ready for reintroduction, for the next 100 years as genetically sound as now.


The current UK ‘Zoo Animals Fund’ requires zoos to demonstrate they have 12 weeks money left and only then can access a maximum grant of £800k due to state aid rules. In practice, this means that Twycross Zoo should be in breach of the Companies Act and Charity Commission guidance by continuing to trade when insolvency is projected.  Closure of a major zoo such as ours would, of course, require rehoming of all our animals which includes families of chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and bonobo. All these apes require specialist staff and expensive accommodation that would take 1-2 years to build. Single apes are moved between zoos planned 1-3 years ahead; not whole families. Added to this, the £800k maximum funding allocation is only sufficient to fund 1-2 months of operation (even if the zoo is closed) so its not even a fund to close or empty a zoo and certainly cannot be described as a continuity fund.  The eligibility for the Zoo Animals Fund needs to be altered to reflect better the needs of the nation’s zoos.


Alongside this request and particularly over the coming months, we need continued support from Government to ensure that zoos can remain open, and our visitors can continue to spend time outdoors, connecting with nature, in a managed and safe environment. Keeping zoos open to the public is the single most important measure in ensuring that we can continue to make invaluable contributions to conservation, education and scientific research, as well as, of course, maintaining world class care for our animals.


No one can have failed to see the latest ‘extinction’ programme by Sir David Attenborough (if you haven’t yet seen it – please do!) which not only outlines what we humans are doing to the planet but also what solutions are out there. Zoos play a crucial role in saving the actual species they look after (like an Ark) but also educate the population about the natural world.

A recent study published by the Society for Conservation Biology measured the degree of extinction preventions in bird & mammal species, since 1993:

  • 21-32 bird extinctions prevented.
  • 7-16 mammal extinctions prevented.
  • Extinction rates would have been 2.9–4.2x higher without conservation.

Zoos are key amongst the organisations behind these conservation actions.


In September 2020, political leaders participating in the United Nations Summit on Biodiversity (representing 76 countries from all regions and the European Union) have committed to reversing biodiversity loss by 2030, stating that “together, it’s time to take a stand with the Leaders’ Pledge for Nature“.   Zac Goldsmith (Minister of State for Pacific and the Environment) has also confirmed this week that Britain will use its financial and diplomatic power to help save the planet.


Whilst I am delighted to see these warm and reassuring words it would be great to see that translated to support of organisations such as UK charity zoos who do this work as their ‘bread and butter’.  We cannot let COVID-19 claim conservation as yet another victim of its assault on our society and all that we hold dear.


For more info on the role of the modern zoo in conservation and why we need them – see my Tedx talk https://youtu.be/fIlNW5OUXiY

About Dr Sharon Redrobe OBE:

Sharon has had a life‐long fascination with wildlife and a belief in the role modern zoos must play in conservation, whilst remaining relevant and supported by the public.

Since appointment as CEO of Twycross Zoo in 2013, Sharon has invigorated this traditional business by positioning as a conversation charity that runs a zoo and launching an ambitious 20-year £55M development plan.

Sharon also serves as Chair of Ape Action Africa and Associate Professor at University of Nottingham.

Sharon’s efforts have been recognised through various awards and appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the Queen’s New Year Honours List 2017 for her services to Skills, Science, and the Economy.

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