Zoo Negara is one of the country’s biggest zoos and the current host of nationally adored pandas from China, Liang Liang and Xing Xing, and their offspring Yi Yi. So when it issued an SOS early in April for funds, Malaysians responded quickly.
While many wrote in with donations ranging from RM30,000 to RM10, others contributed supplies such as vegetables and meat for the 4,000 animals housed at its 45ha site in Ulu Kelang, Selangor.
In the end, zoo deputy president Rosly @ Rahmat Ahmat Lana reported some RM1mil was raised from that appeal alone.
The zoo is run by the Malaysian Zoological Society, an NGO. Every month, it needs about RM500,000 to pay staff salaries; RM350,00 to buy animal food; RM350,000 for maintenance, repairs and routine upkeep; and RM180,000 for utility bills, he says in an emailed reply to queries from The Star.
Zoo Negara isn’t alone in having to ask for donations to keep afloat. The movement control order (MCO) imposed on March 18 to curb Covid-19 infections effectively sealed zoos and animal parks in Malaysia that are long accustomed to ticket sales and donations to fund operating costs.
Malaysian Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (Mazpa) chairman Dr Kevin Lazarus says that throughout the MCO period, staff had to continue working and animals still had to be fed.
“It’s the usual routine, look after the animals as per normal. Just no public, ” he says in a recent interview.
Zoos, he adds, have high operating costs that can run into millions depending on the size of their menagerie and the number of species.
“It depends on the size or how many species or whether there’s a lot of mammals and birds or butterflies or whether it’s a bird park
“For large animals, the feed will be much higher compared with food for insects, birds and reptiles, ” explains Dr Lazarus, who earlier issued an appeal for funding for Mazpa members.
The Taiping Zoo in Perak, for example, has an operating cost of RM5mil a year. Dr Lazarus is its director. Luckily for the country’s oldest zoo with 1,300 animals, it is operated by the Taiping municipal council which funds its operating expenses.
For private zoos, however, the situation is dire.
“We have written to the federal government (for help in funding), ” says Dr Lazarus, whose organisation has 22 members.
In Dire Straits
It’s a state of affairs that zoos around the world are finding themselves in after Covid-19 lockdowns were imposed in many countries; even venerable institutions like the London Zoo has run into financial problems and has had to issue a similar appeal for donations.
A zoo in Bandung, Indonesia, is even reportedly contemplating the horror of having to cull some animals to feed others should it run out of funds for food by next month. In Penang, butterfly farm Entopia told The Star at an earlier interview that its all-Malaysian butterfly population of about 80 species had shrunk by over 70%.
Zoo Negara, says Rosly, used to receive five-year federal grants of RM5mil but that ended in 2004.
“However, the Energy and Natural Resources Ministry has just given us a one-off MCO aid of RM1.3mil, ” he says.
Even when the MCO is finally relaxed – Malaysia entered the recovery phase on June 9 and it’s slated to continue till Aug 31 – social distancing rules mean smaller crowds and, hence, less revenue from ticket sales.
But there’s a darker side to zoos. Netflix true crime drama Tiger King about controversial US tiger sanctuary owner Joe Exotic also exposed animal cruelty.
There have been other reports of abuse at supposed wildlife havens too. So the question arises: Do we still need zoos?
An Idea Whose Time Has Gone?
Zoos began as nothing more than collections of animals behind bars put together by the wealthy for the private viewing of their friends. From those beginnings they evolved, along with zoological science and the concept of animal rights, into an institution for conservation.
However, while there are many zoos that adhere to international standards of conservation for the animals in their care, there are also those that clearly do not and are merely exploitative in nature.
Many of the so-called tiger sanctuaries in Thailand, for instance, are nothing more than farms, breeding the big cats to be slaughtered for their parts. In China, the media have often gone to town over the appalling situation some of their zoo animals are kept in, including a safari park where a live donkey used to be thrown into a tiger pit.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta) – which claims to be the largest animal rights group with over three million members around the world and high-profile celebrity supporters – has accused zoos of “trading, lending, selling, bartering and warehousing animals they no longer want”.
“Many of the species that are being bred (in zoos) aren’t endangered or threatened. Baby animals bring visitors through the gates, ” it claims in a recent statement.
Few of the animals bred in zoos, it further argues, are fit to be released back into the wild.
Friends of the Orangutans (Malaysia) director Upreshpal Singh, who has often highlighted appalling conditions in local zoos and sanctuaries, says that the primary aspect of wildlife conservation should be to protect wildlife habitats.
“Both Mazpa and zoos need to show evidence of how zoo research and conservation contribute to wildlife conservation.
“Zoo owners justify keeping wildlife captive by stating that habitats are shrinking. But what have their zoos done to protect them?
“Zoos also give the impression to the public that captive breeding is conservation. Unless there is a transparent programme to wild-release captive-bred animals, this is a misleading claim, ” maintains Upreshpal.
Breeding and keeping wildlife captive for life, he insists, is not conservation but a money-making venture that exploits the animals.
Citing the Malayan tiger as an example, Upreshpal says many of these big cats have been born in local zoos.
“Yet in the wild they are on the brink of extinction. If conservation claims made by Malaysian zoos are to be believed, surely we wouldn’t have come to this bleak situation?”
Dr Lazarus disagrees, saying that zoos play a crucial role in conservation.
“Many of our members are doing a lot of work in conservation. Many zoos are active in conservation, breeding animals for active re-introduction, ” he counters, pointing to the breeding programme for the endangered milky stork in Zoo Negara and Taiping Zoo.
The burung botak upeh, as the endangered bird is known locally, is reportedly nearly extinct, with the Kuala Gula mangrove forest in Perak said to be the only place where it can be sighted in the wild in Malaysia.
“Zoos play a role in creating awareness among the public of the need to conserve an animal.
“For instance, someone may not know such an animal exists in Malaysia but by showing him that there is such an animal, he will hopefully want to conserve it, ” says Dr Lazarus.
Zoological parks, according to Rosly, do a lot for conservation work and not only through direct efforts such as captive breeding.
Zoo Negara, he points out, started this out with the milky stork, successfully breeding from a flock of 10 birds to over 224 recorded animals.
“We have also given them out to other zoos and parks on long-term breeding loan programmes and exchange breeding loans as well as released some back into the wild by working together with Perhilitan (National Parks Department) and the Malaysia Nature Society in Kuala Selangor.”
The wild species survival reintroduction programme, he maintains, has also helped other species escape possible extinction, listing the conservation centres established for the Malayan tapir in Negri Sembilan and the Bornean sun bear in Sabah.
But what about standards?
Zoos in Peninsular Malaysia, explains Dr Lazarus, are regulated by the minimum standards laid out under the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010.
“All have to follow (standards). About four to five years ago, our members have spent (funds) on upgrading and improving their facilities to adhere to the minimum standards, ” he says.
Dr Lazarus says currently, there are 12 zoos or similar animal parks in Peninsular Malaysia that are not members of Mazpa, and 13 around the country.
“The ones in Peninsular Malaysia have to adhere to the minimum standards under the Act and have to be licensed by Perhilitan, ” Dr Lazarus says.
The ones in Sabah and Sarawak are governed under their respective state enactments.
“We plan to work together with the ministry and relevant government agencies to play an active stakeholder role in promoting Malaysian zoological parks as an emblem for conservation in the region and internationally, ” says Rosly.
While Upreshpal thinks it’s fair for zoos to request financial assistance to help with feeding the animals and paying staff, they should be “100% transparent” about how the money is spent.
That point was also raised by Malaysians after a picture of a supposedly gaunt lion in Zoo Negara went viral on social media after it reopened to the public last week.
Not satisfied with Rosly’s explanation that the lion, Manja Kani, has lost weight because it is a picky eater who does not like the chicken it’s being fed during the MCO period or that it is neglecting its meals trying to mate, many have complained about the lack of transparency in how the donations that the zoo receives are used.
However, Rosly maintains that the zoo keeps an audit of all donations it receives from the public.
“A proper account is maintained for the recording of public donations, as well as cash and in-kind sponsorships from companies, ” he insists.
Rosly says the high expenditure of running Zoo Negara has left it with “very little budget for any expansion of the zoo as a centre for education, conservation and scientific research in Malaysia”.
All this uproar only shows how much Malaysians take Zoo Negara – and the care and management of its animals – to heart.
So much so that some forgot the new normal: A day after the zoo finally opened its doors, police announced that they will be stationed there after pictures emerged of Malaysians ignoring social distancing rules.