Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Popular zoo has tame front but may hide 'wild' activities

March 3, 2010

IT brands itself as a zoo and brags about the conservation works it does. It also proudly talks of its educational role in highlighting the plight of endangered species.

But behind its animal-loving front, this popular private establishment in the southern part of Peninsula Malaysia could be one of the worst examples of a successful commercial enterprise riding on the back of exploiting, breeding and trading in endangered animals.

This zoo, like several others, has earned a name for itself by announcing the birth of new tiger cubs to coincide with major events like the Lunar New Year, or even to commemorate the death of celebrities like Michael Jackson.

To many, it’s the perfect zoo. The beautiful cubs hog airtime and newsprint space, and the tills get filled by the long lines of visitors.

The Year of the Tiger promises to be a boon for the zoo.

A visit before Chinese New Year revealed that one of its tigresses is pregnant. The zoo also allows tiger cub to be hired and this has been a hit with many companies in the Tiger Year.

“We’re fully booked until year-end,” says the zoo keeper proudly. “People are willing to pay between RM1,000 and RM5,000 to ‘borrow’ a tiger cub for a day.”

He says the zoo has two cubs but only the eight-month-old is used for roadshows. Such activities have conservationists up in arms.

To have perfectly timed cubs require the adult tigers to be subjected to “controlled mating”. This as well as the “tiger cubs for hire” schemes are considered heinous and hardly in line with conservation.

The legality of the “rent a tiger cubs” schemes are also questionable. The zoo claims to have the requisite permits from the Wildlife and National Park Department (Perhilitan) for everything it does but are these possible.

Perhilitan had to step in following a spate of pre-Chinese New Year publicity from establishments with tigers promoting photo sessions.

The zoo keeper confirms department’s order for such sessions to stop: “We have been told to hold on until further notice.”

The zoo’s justification is of course pure economics. “The money is needed to feed the animals,” the keeper says. He says the zoo’s Year of the Tiger roadshow could bring in enough revenue to cover expenses for six months.

“Photography sessions in the zoo would further contribute to 50% of the tigers’ maintenance costs,” he adds.

Another worrying result from the zoo’s breeding programme is the creation of mixed-breed tigers which Perhilitan has acknowledged as “worthless” in terms of conservation.

The Guidelines for Zoological Gardens prohibits the cross-breeding of species but this does not seem to concern the zoo keeper.

He says the zoo is allowed to carry out tiger breeding programme, again under a special permit issued to it by Perhilitan.

He says the zoo currently has 24 tigers and reproduction is controlled by having four pairs of breeding animals. As each pair is allowed to mate twice a year, the average newborns will be 32 cubs annually.

“Over the years, we have been cross-breeding them,” says the keeper. “Yeah, there’s a lot of new sub-species created in this way.” He nevertheless admits that the hybrid specimens produced by the zoo can never be released into the wild, dashing any claims to the zoo playing a conservation role.

Questions to Perhilitan such as if the special permit covered the offsprings and if the breeders are obliged to keep a record of its breeding programme were left unanswered.

Neither was the issue of why a zoo which talks of the need to raise money be allowed to operate a breeding facility.

There are also concerns of whether the zoo is involved in the trading of endangered species.

Asked if the zoo has ever sold cubs to anyone, the keeper merely answers that there is a market for tiger cubs and they could easily fetch between RM15,000 and RM30,000 per animal.

He acknowledges that the zoo has supplied three young tigers to another facility before.

Asked if money crossed hands, the keeper says: “That’s between my boss and them.” A spokesman from the other facility said its special permit was acquired through a subsidiary and the animals were obtained under an exchange programme. He, however, did not reveal what animals were exchanged.

The zoo has a run-down feel to it.

And, there is very little educational element involved. Signage is poor and many contained misinformation or just the basic name of the animals behind bars.

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