New regulation seeks to improve zoo conditions

A new regulation spells hope for the betterment of animals kept in zoos.

IF animals could laugh and sing in happiness, there would be some trumpeting of joy emerging from zoos and wildlife parks in Peninsular Malaysia for on Feb 1, the Wildlife Conservation (Operation of Zoo) Regulations 2012 was gazetted.

The new regulation gives voice to the need to regulate zoos systematically and to higher standards. Animal lovers and conservationists have long highlighted the terrible conditions under which wildlife is held in captivity in such establishments. The problem was also widely highlighted in the media last year.

The new regulation is made possible with the enforcement of the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 in December 2010. It replaces the Protection of Wildlife Act 1972 which had been criticised as lacking bite and failing to address many concerns.

One of the failures was the lack of power for the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) to act against errant zoos and wildlife parks. Also, the old legislation has no provisions addressing wildlife welfare and cruelty to captive animals. The new regulation resolves these loophole as it provides for some areas where Perhilitan could take action against errant zoos.

Zoo operators have a six-month grace period to comply with the new requirements of the regulation. Those which do will be issued an annual permit. Any person operating a zoo without a permit is liable to a fine not exceeding RM70,000 or/and a prison term not exceeding three years.

The new regulation requires zoos and animal parks to:

> Adhere to minimum cage sizes, which are specified according to various animal groups.

> Have a quarantine area and a veterinary clinic or hospital.

> Employ a full-time consultant veterinarian.

> Provide vaccination of animals by a veterinarian or anyone under his supervision.

> Provide nutritious and sufficient food for the animals, as prescribed by a veterinarian.

> Maintain a record of kept animals and their health care.

> Ensure the cleanliness of the facility.

> Conduct euthanasia of wildlife whenever necessary.

> Conduct wildlife shows that involves the animals’ natural behaviours only.

> Submit a deposit to Perhilitan for the upkeep of animals should they be seized.

Operators who contravene these provisions are liable to a fine not exceeding RM100,000 or/and a prison term not exceeding five years.

Singapore-based non-governmental organisation Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), which has done several surveys of Malaysian zoos and pointed out the weaknesses of these establishments, views the new regulation positively.

“It is undoubtedly a good start and it shows that Perhilitan is serious about addressing zoo animal welfare issues and has also responded positively to the feedback given by Acres, other non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and members of the public. This is undoubtedly one of the best zoo regulations we have seen in South-East Asia,” says executive director Louis Ng.

Upreshpal Singh, founder of the Friends of Orang Utans Malaysia, concurs. “The new law looks really good and it comes at a time when many zoos still have to improve, some more so,” he says.

While acknowledging that the new regulation is “a good start”, Sahabat Alam Malaysia (SAM) president S.M. Mohamed Idris questions if Perhilitan has the manpower to inspect the many operations that house wild animals. “The new legislation cannot be effective until enforcement officers have acquired expertise in recognising defects in animal husbandry and can devote their time to unannounced physical checks of premises,” he says.

The Natural Resources and Environment Ministry (NRE), however, assures that there will be enough manpower to scrutinise the zoos as it will rely on Perhilitan’s zoo audit team, law enforcement team and wildlife crime units, as well as its own independent zoo review panel. In response to concerns raised by Traffic South-East Asia senior communications officer Elizabeth John, it says the operating permit of a zoo will not be automatically renewed each year. An audit would be done first to ensure compliance with the regulation. In addition, Perhilitan will conduct enforcement checks, attend to public complaints and provide advice to the zoos.

Too lenient

Sean Whyte, founder of Britain’s Nature Alert and a strong critic of Malaysian zoos, describes the regulation as “comprehensive and excellent”. However, he worries about Perhilitan’s dismal record in enforcing the law and the leniency which it has shown to some zoos. “The new law will be useless if not enforced diligently and transparently by Perhilitan. We can only judge them by what they do, not by what they say they will do,” cautions Whyte.

The Ministry counters that NGOs, instead of making accusations, should join Perhilitan in its Teman Zoo Program (Friends of Zoos Programme), an outreach programme launched in July last year for guidance to zoo operators.

“The NGOs can file their complaints to various government agencies, media and political parties if they feel Perhilitan has committed any wrong doings,” it adds.

Measures to monitor the diet of captive animals and their health records are addressed in the Zoo Best Management Guidelines which are now being drafted. On the NGOs’ criticism that the regulation is silent on the type of substrate and furniture used in animal enclosures, the Ministry says these will be controlled by Perhilitan’s zoo audit team and the NRE zoo review panel.

The Ministry says animal inventory – data on births, deaths, acquisitions, escapes, transfers and releases – will be governed by the main Act, specifically in the provisions on “licences and permits”, and also under “duties and obligations”.

“The animal’s record must tally with the tag ID which must be reported to the licensing division for verification when acquiring the animal,” says the Ministry.

But a perusal of the main Act sees some ambiguity in matters concerning animal births, escape and release.

Purely entertainment

One contentious issue with regards to wildlife park operations is the running of animal shows to entertain visitors. Among the acts which had wildlife lovers fuming were: a sun bear made to support itself on a rolling drum; a pig-tailed macaque on a leash made to dive into a tank of water from a raised platform; and orang utans made to cycle.

Previously, zoos have been issued “instructions” to conduct shows which only exhibit the natural behaviour of animals but this was openly flouted. The instruction is now provided for under the regulation.

The Ministry says if zoos fail to comply with the new requirement after the six-month grace period, action will be taken. “The public, too, must do their part by not demanding for circus acts and shy away from it. Awareness is pertinent in this aspect,” it says. To ensure the welfare of captive animals, matters pertaining to cruelty and mistreatment are covered in the main Act.

Meanwhile, three other regulations are being drafted to address other concerns. The proposed Wildlife Conservation (Disposal) Regulations will stipulate matters on euthanasia of animals and require records of disposals to be reported to Perhilitan’s licensing division. The proposed Wildlife Conservation (Commercial Captive Breeding) Regulations will regulate breeding and surplus zoo animals. Transportation of animals to and from zoos will be covered under the proposed Wildlife Conservation (Exhibition) Regulations.

Meanwhile, SAM asks that all proposed new zoos and parks – such as the purportedly largest bird park in South-East Asia, to be sited at the Botanical Gardens in Ayer Keroh, Malacca; the zoo in Kemaman, Terengganu; and the Bukit Gambang Safari Park in Kuantan – be put on hold. It says getting existing zoos to meet the new standards should be the priority for Perhilitan.

The department, however, sees no reason why the new zoos should not be set up as long as they are in accordance with the new regulation. Well, it remains to be seen how effective the policing of the new law will be. Meanwhile, those concerned with the treatment of animals in zoos say they will be vigilant.

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