Shabani the gorilla credited with keeping Nagoya zoo visitor numbers up despite bird flu outbreak

Chunichi Shimbun

The total number of visitors to Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Nagoya reached 2,408,400 in fiscal 2016, the second-highest level in the last 20 years.

The park credits Shabani, a male gorilla famed for his good looks, for its success in maintaining the high number despite a 7 percent drop from the previous year due to a bird flu outbreak.

After the global outbreak of bird flu at the end of November 2016, the zoo detected the highly pathogenic virus in 10 of its avian species, including black swans. Eight died, while the remaining two were euthanized.

The zoo area was shut down for a month between Dec. 11 and Jan. 12 as a result, and only the botanical garden remained open to the public.

To prevent wild birds, which are believed to have been the source of the virus, from gathering within the facility, the zoo drained its outdoor ponds during the one-month break.

In the Bird Hole and Kotori to Risu no Mori (Small Bird and Squirrel Forest), where visitors can observe animals in a natural habitat, the zoo put up nets along the pathway and limited observation to behind window panels.

As a result of closing the zoo for a month, the number of visitors in December and January fell by 63 percent and 42 percent, respectively, compared with the previous year.

Prior to the bird flu, the attendance record was on an upward trend with more visitors in the period between April and November than in 2015.

This was partly due to Shabani, whose popularity has continued to attract visitors since 2015.

“The effect of the decline in numbers from the one-month break due to bird flu was reduced by Shabani,” a zoo spokesman said.

However, even though the park organized an event in celebration of its 80th anniversary in March, the number of visitors for the month was still down 15 percent on the same month the previous year.

Higashiyama Zoo and Botanical Gardens is well known as one of the top tourist attractions in Nagoya.

Among members of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the facility has had the second-highest number of park visitors over the past few years, behind only Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.

In fiscal year 2015, the popularity of Shabani and a warm winter helped the zoo break the 2.5 million mark for attendance for the first time in 19 years, with 2,583,900 visitors.

This section, appearing Tuesdays, features topics and issues from the Chubu region covered by the Chunichi Shimbun. The original article was published April 24.