Replica habitats aim to create more natural animal displays


Spending the day at the zoo isn’t one of the first things families think of any more when they’re looking for weekend recreation. As both new alternatives — from the recent upsurge of interest in soccer to the rash of flashy theme parks — as well as more familiar ones — like the movies — vie for the urbanite’s limited leisure time, zoos are feeling the pinch.

The animals at Ueno Zoological Gardens in Taito Ward, Tokyo, for instance, haven’t had that many visitors of late. At this oldest of all Japan’s 100-odd zoos, the number of visitors in 2001 was less than half the 7.65 million who went there in 1974 — the peak year after the first giant panda, gifted by China, went on display.

So, in the face of their troubled balance sheet, Japan’s zoos — both old and new — are scrambling to find ways in which their visitor numbers can be plumped up. One response has been to widen their role from that of mere recreational venues to that of educative tools, since zoos are becoming increasingly aware of the vital role they can play in promoting environmental awareness and the conservation of endangered species.

In 1996, in keeping with this line of thought, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government-run Ueno Zoo in Taito Ward opened a display called the Woods of Gorillas, a large, 1,200-sq.-meter area where six lowland gorillas live in a “natural” setting planted with phoenix palm trees and studded with rocky outcrops. Native to the rain forests of equatorial Africa, there are now thought to be fewer than 45,000 of these great apes left in the wild, but at Ueno visitors can watch them closely from the perimeter.

Of course, the spacious display required the zoo to make drastic changes to its dated layout. “This zoo started 120 years ago, and we now have about 2,800 animals of more than 400 species. At a zoo like this, it is not that easy to change the design to respond to current needs,” said Hiroshi Sugaya, the director of Ueno Zoo.

To create a convincing replica of the gorillas’ natural surroundings, huge amounts of soil had to be brought in, along with hundreds of plants. Additionally, with the apes being maintained in natural surroundings rather than in sanitized cages, their health demanded constant monitoring from the zoo’s four veterinarians and other staff.

In spite of the effort involved, it had to be done. “We have to try to create a zoo where people who live far away from nature can learn a lot about real animals and their environments,” said Sugaya.

While the new display has proved very popular with visitors, it has had its share of detractors, too. For instance, the decision, in 1991, to move the zoo’s only lion pair to Tama Zoo, another city-run facility, in Hino City, western Tokyo, and to focus instead, on showcasing rare animals, was criticized by the public. Complaints poured in, with visitors demanding: “We want to see lions,” and “Where are the lions?”

Consequently, visitor numbers fell as the zoo cut down on the number of species being housed there to make way for the project focusing on rare animals — from 4.46 million visitors in 1990, just before the zoo moved the lions, to 3.08 million by 2000.

“Through this experience, we have realized what people expect from this zoo,” says Teruyuki Komiya, its general curator. “They come here to see a variety of animals, so showing them a wide range of species is also an important way in which we can educate them.”

As a result, recently the zoo has again begun to house more commonly encountered animals, such as pigs, donkeys and turkeys — as well as lions — in the hope of enticing visitors back.

The experience of Ueno Zoo is a good example of the challenge faced by modern zoos that can no longer hope to stay competitive purely on recreational grounds. If they are to be educational, they must not only be living encyclopedias, housing the widest diversity of animals, but also revisit the notion of sticking those animals behind steel mesh. Revamping both their purpose and their look promises to be an uphill task, particularly for older zoos.

Of course, for the newer ones, exhibiting their animals in more adventurous ways isn’t as difficult. Yokohama Zoological Gardens is a case in point. Also called Zoorasia, it opened in 1999 on a vast 53-hectare site set in the hills of the city’s Asahi Ward. The product of two decades’ worth of planning and design by Yokohama City as well as 10 years spent cultivating the exotic plants needed to simulate this modern zoo’s variety of habitats, Zoorasia is now home to around 500 animals of about 60 species.

“This zoo aims to display the whole ecological system where these particular animals live,” says its director, Mitsuko Masui, a veterinarian and formerly the director of Ueno Zoo. “Although the number of animals is not so large when compared to zoos like Ueno, here we can show people the environments they live in, too.”

Zoorasia is divided into six areas: Oceanian Grassland; Central Asian Highland; Subarctic Forest; Asian Tropical Forest; Amazon Jungle; and Japanese Countryside.

In the Asian Tropical Forest section, for instance, visitors can see a range of animals native to this region, including Indian elephants, pileated gibbons, Bornean orangutans and Indian lions; while the Subarctic Forest section presents a likeness of Himalayan peaks, subarctic forests and seashores, where polar bears, South African fur seals and Humboldt penguins roam freely.

“The spacious design, with many trees and plants, should provide a better environment for the animals and good learning opportunities for visitors as they walk around the pathways,” Masui says. However, she says that because people are not accustomed to a zoo where the animals move freely in a habitat, they sometimes complain that they cannot see the animals well enough — or are not sure if there are really any animals there.

Despite its progressive approach, however, Zoorasia has not been spared from a drought of visitors. When it opened in 1999, attendance figures were about 2.2 million, but by fiscal 2001 they were down to 1.26 million.

“I don’t think of a zoo nowadays as a profitable business,” Matsui says. “Rather it is primarily an educational facility. At the same time, though, to maintain a high quality of displays, we need to attract more visitors by giving them what they want. This is the biggest challenge of creating a better zoo in this era.”