Update (October 14, 2010) : The Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment (NRE) responded to this article in Malaysian Digest.
Last week in Petaling Jaya myZOO organized its first public forum on zoo animal welfare. The turnout could have been better but those who attended knew exactly what they wanted to discuss and some were reporting live on Twitter for those unable to attend. The event was particularly important for two reasons: It was an introduction of sorts for myZOO, a newly formed coalition of non-governmental organizations focused on improving the quality of life of zoo animals in Malaysia, and it was also an opportunity for members of the public to engage in frank discussions with the various organizations and the Department of Wildlife and National Parks (Perhilitan) on issues that are otherwise discussed in offices (among experts and officials), or at the mamak stalls (among regular citizens). That issue being Malaysia’s substandard zoos.
Participants learnt about several new things such as the survey by ACRES, a Singaporean non-governmental organization, conducted in 2009 to assess the quality of life of animals living in 39 zoos in Peninsular Malaysia. Among other things the survey included checks on the size of enclosures used to hold different types of animals as well as animal populations per enclosure. The ACRES survey, which benchmarked our zoos against established global standards for quality, found that few zoos namely Zoo Negara, Zoo Melaka and Zoo Taiping adhered to international conventions. Some others are in deplorable conditions.
According to Lois Ng, founder and executive director of ACRES, a detailed report of the survey’s findings has been submitted to Perhilitan for further action. On their first visit to the Melaka Butterfly Garden and Reptile Sanctuary, ACRES found a tapir suffering from a severe skin disease. Outside its enclosure was a notice asking visitors if they knew what was wrong with the animal, and to inform the management if they knew of a remedy. A year later ACRES visited the place again and found the tapir still there with its lesions still untreated and the notice still hanging outside of its enclosure.
Lois also shared a video taken at Johor’s Danga Bay of a tiger being beaten with a rotan and having its neck pulled by a noose to force it to pose for photos with tourists. And if that was not cruel enough a subsequent visual showed a bear in Danga Bay with its hind legs tied to bicycle pedals to force it to cycle for a performance. If it stopped cycling, the bear would fall over. Lois said authorities have banned the tiger photo sessions at Danga Bay, although it is unclear if other animals are still being forced to make public performances. The fate of these animals, should they be forced to retire, is also unclear.
The case in Danga Bay was similar to that of the A ‘Famosa Resort in Melaka where at least one tiger was believed to have been drugged and abused for photo sessions. A raw YouTube video of one of these sessions sparked outrage among Malaysian social media users and attracted much media attention. After a lot of hype in the media and many complaint letters sent to Perhilitan the authorities said they would investigate the resort. When asked for an update on the investigation at the forum Perhilitan’s Nawayai Yasak said it was unlikely that action would be taken on the resort due to “lack of evidence”. But while a video alone might not be enough to prove scientifically that a tiger has been drugged, it can however prove beyond reasonable doubt that physical abuse had in fact taken place. At both Danga Bay and the A ‘Famosa Resort the mistreatment of tigers by handlers has been recorded on video but no serious action has been taken on either.
It appears that while Perhilitan has the mandate to protect wildlife in Malaysia it does not have the teeth to carry out its duties. According to Nawayai Perhilitan can only effectively ensure the protection of zoo animals when the Wildlife Conservation Act 2010 has been gazetted. The Act has been passed by Parliament, but until and unless it is gazetted, it is business as usual for errant zoo operators.
So, what are we waiting for?