Singapore/Jakarta/Surabaya/Malang. A green and clean atmosphere welcomes visitors at the Singapore Zoo, where signs are posted in multiple languages and tidy lines form for tickets at the row of 10 ticket boxes.Once inside the zoo, wide-open spaces abound, where healthy-looking animals live with some degree of freedom.
Singapore Zoo is part of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, a company that has holdings in three other parks: Jurong Bird Park, Night Safari and the newly opened — and Asia’s first and only — river-themed wildlife park, River Safari.
Currently a self-funded organization, WRS bills itself as being “dedicated to the management of world-class leisure attractions that foster conservation and research while educating visitors about animals and their habitat.”
Dr. Cheng Wen-Haur, the science chief at WRS, said several species at the zoo were endangered and threatened in their native habitats.
“If we don’t do something about it, by next generation, our children or our children’s children won’t see these animals any more in the wild. You may go to the zoo to see them, but in the wild, they’re all gone,” he said.
Cheng added that WRS received its animals from other zoos around the world rather than directly from the wild.
“We’re talking about conservation, which means we try to help the animals survive in the world longer. About the animals that we keep, we want to find out how we can look after them and help them get better and to not get sick, how we can breed them so we can send them back into the wild,” he said, adding that one of their successful breeding programs involved the Bali starling, an endangered bird found only on the Indonesian island.
Cheng said zookeepers and medical staff at WRS facilities routinely checked on the animals based on their individual needs.
“It is very important for the zoo to look after the animals on a daily basis. They can’t talk to you but the zookeepers know them so well so they must know that there’s something wrong with the animals through any change in behavior,” he said.
“In treating sick animals, there are a couple of options: perhaps injections, check the animals closely, take the temperature, blood test, do an X-ray, you know, all the things we humans take when we go to see a doctor,” he added.
“Plus, whatever animals you want to keep in the zoo, you want to make sure that you give them the right amount of space,” he said.
He said WRS had a very close relationship with other zoos and animal welfare groups, so if there were any sick animals that required help from WRS, they would try to accommodate them.
Asked if WRS was open to treating sick animals from Indonesian zoos, Cheng said it was.
“We work very closely with the local partners in terms of conservation projects. We work with NGOs, local zoos, and local NGOs, so if there’s anything we can afford to do, like providing financial support, technical support, sending our expert... Whatever we can do to help,” he said.
Balancing business and welfare
WRS chief executive Lee Meng Tat said managing Singapore Zoo involved finding a balance between earning money from the parks, and taking care of the animals.
“The good thing about us is that we have two teams that work very well together. One that takes care of the animals and all of the operational costs. And a team which not many zoos have, a full commercial team,” he said, adding that WRS was run just the same way as other Singaporean companies reliant on visitors.
“It is a challenge. On one hand, we have this mission to educate people, and at the same time we have to make sure that we do a lot of conservation,” he said.
“If we want to do well, we have to do good. For example, when we buy fruits for human consumption, people will ask us, ‘So the fruits for the animals you buy are the rotten ones, the throwaway ones?’ I said, ‘No. Our food for the animals is as good as for human beings,’” Lee said.
“It is a fine balance between doing something well and working toward maintaining our current business.”
He added that WRS took its responsibility of conveying the message of wildlife conservation to all visitors very seriously.
“It is everything. When you come to our park, seeing is one thing. Visitors can see the wildlife widely and freely. We want our visitors to feel they are in the rain forest. Here, you don’t see exhibits like cages, you see natural forest,” he said.
Meanwhile, in Indonesia
It’s a very different situation at Surabaya Zoo, a facility where so many animals have died unnatural and horrific deaths that the international media have dubbed it “the zoo of death.”
Lee was diplomatic when asked for his take on the situation in Surabaya.
“The Southeast Asian Zoos Association [SEAZA] is taking the lead on this. They are in contact with Surabaya Zoo to see how we can help as an association. We are also familiar with the Indonesia Zoo and Aquarium Association, they are also involved in trying to help,” he said.
“We are trying to work with Surabaya Zoo through SEAZA. The association is talking to them right now and we’re trying to work with them to determine their needs.”
He added that WRS was always open to training officials from other facilities about its management practices.
“We do a lot capacity management training. We are quite well run and we have a good reputation,” Lee said.
“Currently, everybody wants to do something about [Surabaya Zoo]. One of the suggestions was to close the zoo, some said to send the animals away, but it’s not that easy to do that. You can’t just send animals to the wild, you can’t just send them to other zoos. Not every place can accommodate animals from other zoos. We all want to help but there’s must be a proper way to help. We must look together.”
Surabaya Zoo is home to some 3,000 animals, but reported 43 deaths between July and September last year, according to data compiled by the Jakarta Globe.
The causes of death ranged from illness to more gruesome factors, including the 20-kilogram ball of plastic found in the stomach of the zoo’s only giraffe, believed to have been accumulated form years of eating the trash thrown into its pen by visitors to the zoo.
So far this year, the zoo has recorded at least three deaths.
A wildebeest died in the first week of this month after its health deteriorated. Two days later, a lion was found strangled to death after it got its head stuck in between the steel cables lining its pen.
Last week, a young mountain goat was reported dead from injuries sustained from an attack by an adult goat.
The endless series of reports about deaths and the poor conditions in which the animals area kept have garnered widespread criticism from the international community, and were documented in harrowing pictures by Britain’s Daily Mail newspaper.
Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini denounced the photographs are false and said they were taken prior to the government’s takeover of the zoo management.
She asserts conditions at the zoo have improved.
Sybelle Foxcroft, founder and chief executive of Cee4life, an environmental conservation group based in Melbourne, Australia, communicated with the Daily Mail’s Richard Shears, who confirmed that the photographs were current.
Foxcroft said the pressing question was why the mayor was denying the conditions at the zoo and refusing international aid.
“I know that this is controversial, however these animals in Surabaya Zoo need urgent aid, and the mayor is now lying over and over about this. This is a terrible situation and is getting extremely sinister with all the lies,” Foxcroft said.
Tony Sumampau, the director of Taman Safari Indonesia and head of the temporary management team that until recently ran Surabaya Zoo, agreed that the mayor was not being entirely truthful.
“[The mayor] keeps mentioning that she has change the food the animals are fed, when in fact I was the one who ordered the change of food at Surabaya zoo in 2011. To date, we’re still using my formula. She just want to get support from the public,” Tony said.
Indications of corruption
In response to the criticism, the mayor said she planned to report the Surabaya Zoo case to the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) over alleged embezzlement of funds overseen by the temporary management team.
She also said the transfer of 483 animals out of the zoo was highly suspicious, although Tony and zoo management experts have long argued that the best way to reduce the number of animal deaths is to cut the number of animals that the zoo can afford to take proper care of.
But Rismaharini claims that some of the animals were traded by zoo officials for money or other items, including cars.
“Trading the animals for cars or motorcycles is illegal. You can only exchange animals with animals,” she said adding that her administration was compiling a detailed list of the animals lost at the zoo, whether through deaths or illegal trades, before the city administration took over its management from Tony’s team.
Ratna Achjuningrum, the city-appointed director of the zoo, said there were six deals for animal exchanges made between March and July 2013 that the city had decided to scrap.
She called the deals problemati, saying there had been no formal evaluation of the planned exchanges or permission from the Indonesian president.
Under the planned exchange, endangered animals including Komodo dragons, Sumatran tigers and Bali starlings would have been sent to other facilities better equipped to accommodate them.
Wildlife conservation group ProFauna Indonesia has suggested that all the animals at Surabaya Zoo be immediately relocated to another facility, given the high number of deaths there.
Rosek Nursahid, the ProFauna chairman, said his organization feared an international backlash if the zoo was allowed to continue operating as usual.
“Several years ago there was a boycott of Bali by European tourists because of the practice there of using turtles in sacrificial ceremonies,” he said.
“I worry that the same thing will happen to East Java if the tragedies at Surabaya Zoo keep mounting.”
Rosek said several international wildlife conservation groups had conveyed to ProFauna their concerns about the treatment of animals at the zoo, with many offering financial assistance.
However, he said he had advised against giving the zoo any money, given the lack of accountability displayed so far, and warned that financial support would not address the roots of the problem.
Rosek said ProFauna and other groups had urged Forestry Minister Zulkifli Hasan to take a firm stance in dealing with the spate of deaths, including by forcing the zoo to transfer animals to other facilities.
But he said other conservation groups had voiced concern over such a plan, arguing that with many of the animals at Surabaya Zoo suffering a range of illnesses, they would transmit these diseases to healthy animals at other zoos.
“But this can be obviated by getting veterinarians to check each animal’s health before approving them for transfer to another facility,” Rosek said.
ProFauna has also demanded that police investigate all the animal deaths, with Rosek alleging systematic irregularities in the management of the zoo as a contributing factor for the high number of deaths.
He also called for the zoo to improve its security, including by setting up closed-circuit television cameras, after several juvenile Komodo dragons went missing a few years ago, believed to have been stolen for the illegal pet trade.
Ultimately, Rosek said, the entire zoo management needs to be replaced.
“Everything has to be overhauled first, and only then can we think about fixing the zoo,” he said.