Future of zoos

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South Africa’s municipal zoos have come under fire in the past two years over welfare concerns and their overall relevance in a country renowned for its wildlife sanctuaries and parks. Louzel Lombard Steyn asks whether there’s still a place for zoos in South Africa.

The East London Zoo has been keeping a jaguar in a 150m2 wire cage for more than three years while it awaits relocation to a bigger enclosure. At the Johannesburg Zoo, two more elephants have been placed in captivity after management refused to release their female elephant to a rewilding sanctuary when her life-long partner died in 2018. Bloemfontein Zoo has been closed indefinitely over permit violations of Endangered species and, at Pretoria Zoo, the welfare of animals was recently called into question when animals allegedly were not fed for days.

Despite a global outcry and the rapid deterioration of conditions, the struggling facilities refuse help from other wildlife facilities wanting to alleviate the animals’ suffering.

Brown bears in a deep concrete pit at East London Zoo caused global public backlash. Photo: Louzel Lombard Steyn

South Africa’s state-run zoos say they play an important role in conservation, research and the education of young children and ‘marginalised communities’ in South Africa, according to Jenny Moodley from Johannesburg Zoo.

Bloemfontein, Pretoria and the East London zoos echo these sentiments, while the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) of Wild Fauna and Flora also supports the notion that zoos are a key aspect of education and conservation.

Problematically, the CITES definition of zoos immunises the facilities from scrutiny and creates a loophole in regulations, allowing zoos to breed exotic animals and advertise them on zoo-animal wholesale platforms, says Ban Animal Trading (BAT) director Smaragda Louw.

“There is no conservation value as these captive-bred animals can never be released in the wild,” Louw says. “Baby animals are attractions but once the cuteness factor has worn off, the animals are sold to other zoos or private individuals.” It creates a vicious cycle into which more and more animals are born.
“In terms of education, the best example of why one does not need a zoo for developing interest in an animal, is the dinosaur,” says Panthera Africa Big Cat Sanctuary co-founder and director, Cathrine Nyquist. “They have not been around for millions of years, yet they are one of the most popular animals that everyone knows something about.”

Annette Rademeyer of the King Williamstown SPCA near East London agrees. “Officialdom will tell you that many children come to the zoo who would not have the opportunity to see these animals in the wild. But what are we teaching the children?” she asks. “That it’s okay to incarcerate animals under such conditions to be made fun of – there is no educational purpose being served.” In South Africa with its rich wildlife heritage, opportunities exist for people of all demographics to see wild animals in their natural habitat. The SANParks open week is but one example, and privatised wildlife sanctuaries in South Africa are also stepping up.

Children on an educational visit at Panthera Africa. Photo: Panthera Africa

A movement labelled #truesanctuaries has taken off in South Africa, spearheaded by five internationally-accredited sanctuaries that operate on the strictest ethical guidelines. The Drakenstein Lion Park in Paarl, Panthera Africa outside Stanford, Jukani Wildlife Sanctuary near Plettenberg Bay, the Born Free Foundation at Shamwari and Lionsrock Big Cat Sanctuary near Bethlehem in the Free State, all abide by these standards that say no to breeding, trading and interaction.

“The initiative is about setting best industry practices and ultimately encouraging other captive wildlife facilities to transform,” says sustainable-tourism consultant Dr Louise de Waal. “These facilities will not breed or trade, will never allow unnecessary human-animal interaction or permit visitors to enter the animal’s ‘safe space’”.

Isobel Wentzel, group curator for the South African Animal Sanctuary Alliance says, “There is no place left for any zoo where animals are simply incarcerated for visitors’ gaze. Animals in zoos are seen as objects on display, they might as well be stuffed animals. Visitors, especially children, who leave a zoo, take nothing of value home with them.”

Nyquist says that facilities like Panthera Africa host free and discounted tours for under-resourced schools to teach them “about the big cats and how they came to be here, so they understand what is happening and can make informed decisions about what facilities to support in future. We feel we need to educate the public about what is really happening in the captive-lion breeding industry.”

Leading global conservationist Damian Aspinall says the writing is on the wall. “We’re not suggesting that zoos be closed straight away, that this is not a viable option. We suggest that a plan is put in place so that zoos are phased out over a 25 to 30-year period.”

In South Africa, most of the state zoos occupy coveted natural real estate and there is great potential for

Johannesburg Zoo grounds. Photo: Johannesburg Zoo

these grounds to be converted into public spaces for all to enjoy.

“East London’s zoo grounds are beautiful and would make a very attractive botanical garden where families can have a picnic or walk around,” Rademeyer says. The same goes for Bloemfontein, Pretoria
and Johannesburg.

If zoos are to be a part of South Africa’s wildlife heritage going forward, changes will need to be made. The unnecessary incarceration of wildlife is no longer acceptable and South Africa’s municipal zoos will need to step up or face even harsher backlash.

Written by Louzel Lombard Steyn
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