Shoebills, native to Africa, were first brought to Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo in 2002. Although they resemble Big Bird of “Sesame Street” fame, with their exaggerated beaks and chopstick legs, their eyes are anything but friendly.
Naoki Tabata, assistant director of Ueno Zoological Gardens, is well aware the birds’ scary stare isn’t as engaging as the warm, fuzzy look of the zoo’s late beloved giant panda. But it’s still a draw.
“The obvious favorites at our zoo now are the elephants, lions and zebras. But the shoebill definitely has gained a fan base,” Tabata said.
Students on school trips general flock to the more flamboyant flamingo cage, but something about the shoebill has grabbed attention.
“Everyone loved the giant panda, but the shoebill is for real animal fanatics,” Tabata explained.
Heading into its busiest season of the year, Ueno Zoo hopes its flock of storklike birds with shoe-shaped beaks revives its slumping ticket sales. And bringing back the fans that left after the 2008 death of its mascot panda, Ling Ling, will be key to reviving the country’s oldest zoo.
According to Tabata, the Tokyo-managed zoo first opened in 1882 and saw a record 7.6 million visitors in 1974 — two years after it introduced the first giant pandas to the public. But Ling Ling’s death last year dealt a massive blow to already wobbly ticket sales, causing annual visitors to fall below the 3 million mark for the first time in 60 years.
“We had 2.89 million visitors in 2008, and Asahiyama Zoo had 2.76 million,” Tabata said.
Ueno continues to be Japan’s favorite zoo, but Hokkaido’s Asahiyama, which has drawn tourists with its unique displays and new presentations, is running a close second.
Speaking at a news conference in early April, Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara criticized Ueno for its sluggish performance and management skills.
“It’s too simplistic to say that visitors are down because the panda is gone. There needs to be more ideas,” the governor said.
After struggling for decades, Asahiyama underwent an overhaul in the mid-1990s and constructed cages and facilities that better displayed animal habits. One signature installment was a special water tank with vertical passages that allows seals to swim upright and close to visitors.
“Zoos in Hokkaido are trying new ideas and showing new performances. (Ueno) needs to think that way, too,” Ishihara advised.
Ueno’s Tabata refused to comment on the governor’s remarks, or reveal if the zoo is willing to acquire another panda. But the assistant director, who also manages education and public affairs, reckoned a zoo’s success shouldn’t be judged just by the number of visitors.
Nor should Ueno Zoo be compared with other recreational facilities, such as Tokyo Disneyland, since the zoo is an “educational facility,” he said. Tabata insisted that attracting more people is part of the job, but promoting nature conservation and saving endangered animals are as important as becoming the people’s favorite park.
As a facility run by the metropolitan government, Ueno Zoo has been involved in protecting rare Japanese wood pigeons that can only be seen on the Ogasawara Islands.
It’s not an ostentatious project but one that Ueno has the responsibility to carry out, and one that succeeded in breeding the exceptional birds.
Tabata acknowledged that much can be learned from Asahiyama’s management, and Ueno will be holding its “zookeeper’s talk” events where visitors will have a chance to ask workers about the habits of their favorite animals. He also seeks to improve facility use by creating more air-conditioned areas in summer and providing cleaner bathrooms.
“Attracting more visitors is good, but we are focused on educational aspects as well,” Tabata said, explaining that Golden Week will see 300,000 people at the zoo. Exceeding that number will make it difficult for visitors to enjoy and study the animals, he said.
“Our focus is to fascinate visitors by showing the habits of a variety of animals that are new to them,” he added.
This brought Tabata back to the shoebill, his favorite at the moment.
“I really love the shoebill because it has the appearance of a philosopher. The birds are so serene and motionless,” Tabata said.
There are only nine shoebills in Japan, five of them at Ueno, and most of their habits remain a mystery.
Zookeeper Nobuhiro Kasai acknowledged that even a shoebill’s life span is unclear, and none have been bred in Japan.
“This was a bird that initially made an odd impression on me, and it took some time for its characteristics to sink in. It took time for our visitors to become interested,” Kasai said. Now the zealous fans have gone as far as to purchase zoo passport tickets to make near-daily trips to see the birds.
“Our challenge now is to breed the shoebill, which is difficult because the bird really likes its privacy,” Kasai said.
Asked if he thinks the uncanny bird is as cute as a panda, Kasai replied without hesitation: “Once you raise them, they really become like your children and are equally lovable.”