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4 Jun, 2015

Animals live by Mahatma Gandhi’s words, humans don’t, Zoo Director says

Sanya, Hainan Island — Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi is famous for his far-sighted dictum, “There is enough in this world for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” While the human race is notorious for ignoring those insightful words, the animal world has it embedded into its DNA.

In a wide-ranging interview at the annual general meeting of the Tourism Promotion Organisation for Asia-Pacific cities held here between May 27-29, Dr Kevin Lazarus, Director of the Taiping Zoo and Night Safari, Perak, Malaysia, observed, “Animals have no greed. They take only as much as they need to survive. Humans have greed and want to take as much as they can.”

Dr Kevin Lazarus

Dr Kevin Lazarus

As a professional veterinarian who follows animal behaviour day in and day out, he is fascinated by the diversity of wildlife and its role in the survival of the planet. Although a zoo is often considered just a place for a nice family outing, Dr Lazarus says it is a perfect place to think a little deeply about the importance of animals in the global ecosystem, and what humans can learn from them.

Born and raised in Taiping, Dr Lazarus, 53, earned his degree in veterinary medicine at the Agriculture University, Malaysia. He then joined Taiping zoo and has been there since. Reporting to the City Council, his job covers management, administration, planning, implementation of strategies, HRD and fund raising.

The Taiping zoo covers 36 acres with 2.5 kilometres of pathways. He says, “It is a very nice layout for both the animals and the public. We have tried to make it as natural as possible. For example, we just redid the elephant exhibit and put in a waterway, 60 m long, 10 m wide and 3.2 m deep so that the elephant can swim in it. So it looks natural. That cost 1.5 Malaysian ringgit.”

The day-night zoo is the only one in Malaysia with a night-safari and one of a few in ASEAN, alongside the Singapore and Chiang Mai zoos. Day visitors pay 16 ringgit for adults and 8 ringgit for children below 12. The Night safari costs 20 ringgit for adults.

He said the Taiping zoo’s unique selling proposition is that it adopts the open concept with no visible barriers for nearly all the animal exhibits. Moreover, he said, “We don’t have animal shows. We feel it is not good for them. They should not be doing anything that is outside their natural routine and behaviour.”

In any zoo, the three primary drivers are the condition of the animals, the public satisfaction levels and convenience-cum-safety of staff to do their job.

“When a person comes into the zoo and sees the animals in bad condition, it leaves them with a negative perception. But if they see the animals in an open area, looking well taken care of and in good health, that is very important and creates a sense of happiness which rubs off on the visitors. Seeing a tiger swimming or gibbons playing is like seeing them in their natural habitat.”

Asked what the human world can learn from the animal world, Dr Lazarus laughed. He said humans tend to look down on animals and see them as being some kind of sub-species. In fact, he thinks it is the other way around. “When humans want to insult each other, they use the name of an animal. I think that’s actually an insult to the animal.”

He added, “Animals are predictable. They are easier to manage. They all have set ways of doing things. They rarely do things that are not in their normal routine – whether it is drinking at a waterhole, sleeping, hunting, mating. They don’t cross into each other’s turf. Various species, be they predators or prey, stay in the same area. Only when they predator is hungry, does it cross the line.

“In the animal kingdom only the fit can survive, which is not too different from the human world. Once you become weak, the younger, stronger ones come in to take over. As a rule, animals have no greed. They take only as much as they need to survive. Humans have greed and want to take as much as they can.”

He said animals also have a powerful sense of communicating and detecting danger, which humans do not. For example, elephants communicate by subsonic waves, which humans cannot hear. In the case of the 2004 tsunami, there were many stories about how animals began to move to higher ground well before the killer wave struck. “They could probably hear the rumblings, but we could not.”

He noted that in the corporate world, ants are being used as examples for management executives on enhancing teamwork. “In the human world, if someone is trying to do good, we tend to pull them down, but not the ants. If the ants have to move a leaf, and one little guy can’t do it, the others will join in to help. Same thing with the bees. They know how to connect with each other for a common good.

“And they can build very comprehensive structures. Even wild rabbits. Their warrens are always built with two ways in and out. So if a predator comes down one side, the rabbits can scurry out and escape from the other.

“If we are smart, there is a lot we can learn from the animal world,” Dr Lazarus said.

Asked about the low priority that is usually given to zoos in terms of budget allocation vis a vis other areas of development, Dr Lazarus said, “Not in our case. We play a very important role in Taiping. It is a small town, with a population of about 200,000. But we get just under 700,000 visitors a year, which is thrice the people. And we generate a lot of economic activity via concessions, souvenir shops, direct and indirect employment. For example, we have many suppliers of food for the animals, and those suppliers have their suppliers. So the economic activity is very diverse.”

Are zoos economically viable? Dr Lazarus replied, “Over the years we have made it viable. Our zoo reports a surplus. Instead of being a burden we are supporting the city. The budget given by the city is sufficient for its management and maintenance but not for capital expenditure on redevelopment. However, we can source from other ministries.”

Citing some of the costs involved, Dr Lazarus said, “Each elephant consumes 250 kilos a food a day including banana trunks, jackfruit leaves, fresh grass and hay. At the Taiping zoo, that costs 230 ringgit per elephant per day. So if the zoo has eight elephants, you can calculate the cost. Tigers consumer between five to nine kilos of meat per day.”

He said the revenue stream depends on the size of zoo, the number of visitors, concession revenues and other such factors. The Taiping Zoo does a turnover of about 7.5 million ringgit a year based on visitors of 680,000, while the Singapore does 140 million Singapore dollars.

He said the plan is to increase both the visitors and revenues earnings of Taiping Zoo by 5% this year by improving the 12 enclosures, boosting training and education for the staff, and marketing and promotion. Work is also being done to take better care of endangered species such as Malaysian tiger, Malaysian elephant, tapia, golden cat, marble cat and the serow mountain goat.

Dr Lazarus said foreign visitor numbers are still small but contacts are under way with the tour companies in Penang to get the zoo included in the itineraries.

Asked what kind of complaints they have to deal with, he said, not much on the animal side, but usually about toilet conditions, specially on long holidays when the zoos get crowded.

Asked about the condition of zoos in ASEAN, he said they are quite different, both within and amongst countries.

Many were designed using concepts of 50 years ago when animal comfort was not adequately framed in terms of their habitat or their physical, physiological and psychological condition. These days, he said, it is important to create a proper atmosphere that covers everything from the general environment to the cage to the feeding regimes.

In Malaysia, a Wildlife Conservation Act was passed in 2010 which puts in minimum standards for running zoos. After that, some private zoos closed down because they could not meet the standards.

Dr Lazarus said that from a layman’s perspective, the Singapore Zoo and Taman Safari in Bogor would be considered among the best. “Ours is still getting there,” he said. The Khao Khiew Open Zoo in Thailand is “pretty good,” he said. The Dusit zoo in Bangkok is being upgraded and doing well with breeding and conservation of endangered species.

He said the newer zoos tend to focus more on animal conservation and preservation than the older ones. That is set to gain greater importance in future, especially to counter the criticism of many NGOs which are against zoos entirely. “Crappy zoos give them ammunition,” he said.

He said the formation of a Southeast Asia Zoos Association has provided a forum for them to network, share experiences and do training courses. The group also holds an annual convention, with the next one due in Singapore in November.