"Because one in seven endangered species is now in the care of zoos, today’s zoos can well be compared to Noah’s Ark," president and CEO Clement Lanthier said Thursday.
"We are part of a global network of conservation organizations to preserve species in the wild using all the means at our disposal, including captive breeding, reintroduction and education."
The polar bear exhibit at the Calgary Zoo was opened in 1973 and was demolished a year after the last bear, Misty, died in 1999.
"We appreciate that some people will question our decision to include polar bears in our plan, but let me touch on this," Lanthier said.
"Polar bears are an important part of the Canadian landscape. They are iconic and majestic. But the sad reality is they are facing huge environmental challenges."
Lanthier said most experts predict that polar bear numbers will dwindle dramatically in the next 10 to 20 years. He suggested the Calgary Zoo can help by preserving the white bears in sufficient numbers to ensure genetic diversity.
"We're looking at 10, 15, 20 years from now," he said. "Not including them in our plan would be negligent because we need to help that species which will become at risk."
The zoo's expansion plan will cover 20 years. Lanthier said it will probably be seven to 10 years before the polar bear exhibit is ready. Until then, the redesign will involve moving the zoo's elephants to a different facility and rebuilding their habitat into a home for two giant pandas on loan from China.
Five-year-old Er Shun and her prospective mate, four-year-old Da Mao, arrived in Canada in March and are splitting the next 10 years equally between the Toronto Zoo, where they are now settled, and the Calgary Zoo.
Given the impact of a giant panda visit in 1988 when attendance almost doubled, Lanthier said the Calgary Zoo expects a five-year stay starting in 2018 will give tourism a significant boost.
Zoocheck Canada was disappointed that the Calgary Zoo intends to reintroduce polar bears.
"We've always taken a position that polar bears are one of the most challenging animals in captivity and they really can't be accommodated properly in the urban zoo environment, especially one with a small footprint like the Calgary Zoo," said Zoocheck executive director Rob Laidlaw.
Laidlaw said if the Calgary Zoo does proceed with its plans, he hopes it takes one of the 600 to 1,000 estimated polar bears in captivity in animal parks around the world.
"Hopefully they're not going to be looking at extracting animals from the wild and instead will look for bears from less desirable circumstances in captivity."
The Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg already has one bear at its International Polar Bear Conservation Centre. The outdoor part of the exhibit was renovated and expanded specifically to accommodate polar bears and hopes to become a world-class attraction for tourists and researchers.
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