In 1957, a year after gaining independence, a Committee Member of the Malayan Agri-Horticultural Association (MAHA), Mr V.M. Hutson (later Tan Sri) opened a miniature zoo at the annual MAHA exhibition which proved popular with the people of Malaya. This set the stage for the establishment of a full-scale zoo that everyone in the nation could enjoy.
The National Zoo (Zoo Negara) was officially opened by Y.T.M. Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj on 14 November 1963. Since then, the zoo has become a major tourist attraction, growing from a simple collection of animals to one of the country’s primary hubs for conservation and education.
From humble beginnings as simple wildlife exhibitions, Malaysia’s zoos have become centres for “research, education, training, conservation and recreation”. In fact, “exhibition” does not even figure in the Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (Perhilitan)’s definition of the roles played by zoos and aquaria.
The linchpin to improvements in the management of Malaysian zoos and aquariums was the 2010 revision to the Wildlife Conservation Act and the accompanying 2012/2013 regulations. These regulations specifically addressed park licensing and management. Thereafter, parks were given two years to comply with regulations or close down.
So from seven to eight years ago, we started seeing improvements. Now, in terms of the size of the exhibits, all have complied. They are focusing on layout and landscaping – every park should be doing this – as well as good signage and educational activities, especially for schools.
We don’t allow animal shows any more – the focus has to be natural behaviours and education. – Kevin Lazarus, chairperson of the Malaysian Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (Mazpa)
Although Zoo Negara and others of its kind have been waning in popularity in recent years, especially after the pandemic, they still remain a vital means of connecting our tech-centric children and youth with nature and wildlife.
Zoo Negara’s most famous conservation milestone is the captive breeding of Milky Storks (Myctera cinerea). These birds can be found distributed throughout South East Asia. However, their numbers have declined rapidly due to modern development and military activities resulting in the loss of their natural habitat and food sources.
Zoo Negara took the first step to ensure the survival of this species through its captive breeding program and by educating the public. From 7 initial birds, Zoo Negara managed to breed over 100 Milky Storks by 2007, the first in the world.
Another one of Zoo Negara’s conservation milestones is the captive breeding of False Gharials (Tomistoma schlegelii), a large freshwater crocodilian species that lives in dense secluded areas of the rainforest fringes, mainly near slow-moving rivers, swamps and lakes.
Once a widespread species, habitat destruction has led to its population decline and it is believed that there are fewer than 2500 individuals left in the wild. Zoo Negara represents the first attempt at captively breeding False Gharials in Peninsular Malaysia. Therefore, they play a vital role in both the conservation of the species and research into its breeding habits.
More recently, the Taiping Zoo and Night Safari had been making plans to breed endangered green peafowl and release them into their natural habitat later on. The zoo’s director Dr Kevin Lazarus said the birds were protected species under the country’s Wildlife Conservation Act.
Its current status in the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is categorised as an endangered species. The birds are said to be extinct in the wild in Malaysia. We hope to achieve some success to ensure the birds can live freely again in their natural habitat. – Dr Kevin Lazarus, Taiping Zoo and Night Safari director
Controversies Behind The Cages
Although zoos have played vital roles in conservation and education, there have been many controversies over the years. These controversies caused many to question whether zoos truly have a place in our modern society.
In February 2021, the Malaysian Trade Union Congress (MTUC) lodged a complaint against Zoo Negara over the sale of 6 female spotted deer (also known as chital or axis deer). According to MTUC general council member A. Sivananthan, the deer were sold for RM5,000 to a private company. It was not known if the buyer had purchased the deer to slaughter them for their meat or for breeding purposes.
We want to know whether the zoo management is allowed to sell animals at their whims and fancy without following standard procedures. Normally, they should have an open tender for the sale of any government assets.
So who gets the RM30,000 from this sale? If one or two people are allowed to decide on any sale of zoo animals, the power can be abused. – A Sivananthan, Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) general council member
Former Zoo Negara acting director Dr S Vellayan said it was never the practice of the zoo in the past to sell its animals except under extenuating circumstances. He added that it had only happened once in his 28 years at the zoo. He said the normal practice was to exchange them with other zoos or related bodies that operate legally and are licensed to operate farms.
This can lead to abuse like selling the animals to those with vested interests. And we do not know if the new owners know how to handle them. There is also the danger of diseases being spread. – Dr S Vellayan, former Zoo Negara acting director
Dr Mat Naim Ramli, the director of zoology, veterinary and panda conservation at Zoo Negara, said that there were about 60 of these deer. He added that they are a commercial species. He said the zoo had to reduce the numbers and since these deer fell under the non-protected animal category, they could be sold to individuals or companies for breeding or for their meat.
We obtained the necessary permission from the Wildlife and Veterinary Services Departments. We got a good price so it was all above board. The revenue will be used for our operations. – Dr Mat Naim Ramli, Zoo Negara director of zoology, veterinary and panda conservation
In 2018, the Kemaman Zoo in Terengganu was accused of neglecting and mistreating the animals under its care. Members of the NGOs Malaysian Friends of the Animals and Friends of the Orangutans (Foto) showed photographic evidence from an elephant calf chained up in a muddy enclosure to a baby orangutan being kept in a small cage (with a Kemaman Council secretary claiming that the baby orangutan had to be separated from his mum due to medical reason).
Activists have also criticised an elephant enclosure at the zoo, noting that it does not appear adequate to house the zoo’s elephants in enough comfort.
The enclosure has components of a more modern facility but it is flawed from the start. The floors are concrete, which can lead to foot disease. The stalls are stark and small. The yard is much too small for any group of elephants. I did not see an annex yard where elephants can be separated for introduction and in the event that they do not socialize well. – Carol Buckley, Elephant Aid International
More Troubles In The Horizon
The Covid-19 pandemic caused severe financial problems for zoos in Malaysia as lockdowns resulted in reduced incomes. Not helping matters is that operating costs are difficult to meet, with Zoo Negara’s operating costs being around RM1 million per month. Annually, the zoo spends a whopping RM500,000 (US$121,400) to care for its tigers. In a day, it costs RM107 to feed one Malayan tiger and RM214 for the Bengal tiger which feeds on 10kg of meat.
Zoo Negara’s deputy president Rosly@Rahmat Ahmat Lana notes that the zoo’s financial goals had already begun when the government decided to end its five-year grants of RM5 million (US$1.2 million) in 2004. Rosly adds that while the zoo has minimal issues operating as usual, it is facing difficulties expanding
Currently, it receives a one-off payment from the government which is used for upkeep works. But, according to Rosly, it is still not enough as the zoo requires numerous repairs.
We have no problem with running the zoo on a daily basis, paying staff salaries to our staff and managing the animals that we keep in here. We can still bear the costs of visitors’ fees. But it is just impossible to upgrade the zoo as it will cost us a lot of money, which we don’t have. – Rosly@Rahmat Ahmat Lana, Zoo Negara deputy president
Dr Mat Naim Ramli notes that wages cost RM400,000, food totals RM350,000 and utilities come to RM180,000. He also states that revenue had started to pick up during the recovery movement control order (RMCO).
Zoo Negara made RM450,000 in June, RM1 mln in July, RM1.3 mln in August and RM850,000 September, but only RM150,000 in October – Dr Mat Naim Ramli, Zoo Negara director of zoology, veterinary and panda conservation.
Educating Children In A Tech-Centric Era
Many activists and animal lovers worldwide have raised concerns about the relevance of zoos in the post-Covid-19 era, stating that we as humans must become more empathetic now that we have experienced what it feels like to be caged in.
Many experts, however, still believe that we need zoos for wildlife conservation, especially endangered ones, as many species are almost extinct. As mentioned above, Zoo Negara has had remarkable success in captivity breeding the endangered Milky Stork and False Gharial.
Indeed, there is a holy grail of functions whereby parks can serve conservation, said Kevin Lazarus, chairperson of the Malaysian Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (Mazpa):
- Conservation education
- Conservation breeding (for reintroduction to the wild)
- Contribution to conservation (funding, expertise, collaborations with scientists)
- Maintaining populations which are at risk (of becoming extinct in the wild)
Not only that but zoos also play a vital role in educating our children, especially in a country where 70% of the population lives in towns and cities. Unfortunately, later generations are becoming increasingly tech-centric, with many children, especially in our cities, no longer overly connected or engaged in the natural world around them.
Bringing children on zoo visits gives them the opportunity to look up from their phone or Ipad screens entirely and learn about conservation efforts and the importance of looking after the planet’s wildlife.
One educational benefit that zoos provide is the opportunity for hands-on learning. When kids are young, they really can absorb so much knowledge by seeing and touching what they are learning about. And by participating in interaction stations and feeding areas, children can fully immerse themselves in the animals while learning about them and their daily lives. These activities are conducted by animal care professionals and educators.
While some still believe that zoos no longer have a place in our increasingly urban world, we cannot deny the significantrole they play. These roles include not only conservation, but also educating our children and bringing them closer to nature.
Zoos And Wildlife Sanctuaries In Malaysia And Their Successes
Here are some zoos and wildlife sanctuaries in Malaysia that you can visit to educate yourself and your children on the importance of nature and wildlife conservation.
Zoo Negara Malaysia is managed by the Malaysian Zoological Society, a non-governmental organization established to create the first local zoo for Malaysians. Zoo Negara was officially opened on 14th November 1963 and has evolved into a well-known zoo all around the world, with a total of over 5137 specimens from 476 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and fish.
Zoo Negara is most famous for its successes in captively breeding the endangered Milky Stork and False Gharial.
Zoo Taiping or Taman Mergastua Sultan Idris Shah is the only zoo located in the north of Peninsular Malaysia. Zoo Taiping was established in 1961 and is located in a natural abode in the Taiping Lake Gardens near the foothills of Maxwell Hill (Bukit Larut), covering an area of 36 acres (14 hectares).
The zoo has its own unique qualities as it is situated in an area where nature flourishes with natural streams, a tranquil lake and lush greenery. Zoo Taiping now houses around 1500 animals from 140 species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and fish.
Currently, Taiping Zoo is conducting a captive breeding program for endangered green peafowl.
Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre
When Sabah became an independent state in Malaysia in 1963, a Game Branch was created in the Forest Department for the conservation of wild animals in the region. Consequently, 43 sq km of protected land at the edge of Kabili Sepilok Forest Reserve was turned into a rehabilitation site for orangutans and this is where Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre is located.
Today around 60 to 80 orangutans live independently in the reserve and approximately 25 orphaned orangutans are housed in the nurseries. The centre provides medical care for orphaned and confiscated orangutans as well as dozens of other wildlife species including sun bears, gibbons and elephants.
Sepilok is considered by the Wildlife Department to be an invaluable educational tool with which to educate both localsand visitors alike. However, they are adamant that education must not interfere with the rehabilitation process. Visitors are restricted to walkways and are not allowed to approach or handle the apes.
Matang Wildlife Centre
Matang Wildlife Centre is an exceptional wildlife rescue project, as it aims to rescue any and all protected wildlife in Sarawak, a Malaysian state on the island of Borneo. The centre is owned by the Sarawak Government and managed by Sarawak Forestry Corporation. Rehabilitation of the iconic orangutan is one of the centre’s activities. However, there are other animals such as small primates, big cats and sun bears, usually rescued from captivity and the illegal pet trade.
A Malaysian conservation organization working in partnership with SFC, the Orangutan Project has committed to supporting this center by providing food, building infrastructure, assisting with releases, commissioning research, providing expert advice, and helping with management on a daily basis.
Matang’s original mandate was to be a rehabilitation centre. However, it is nearly impossible to successfully release intothe wild any animal that has been kept in captivity, even for a short time. Most animals that end up at Matang do so as a consequence of the illegal pet trade. Therefore, it serves more of a sanctuary role for the majority of the animals that arrive.
There are ongoing attempts to release animals. A local team has been trained and investment made in technology to collar any animal that is put back in the jungle. Two orangutans have recently been released into semi-wild in Kubah National Park and 6 orangutans under the age of 8 spend almost every day training in the park.
Explore our sources:
- Zoo Negara – A Journey Through Time. Link.
- SL Wong. (2020). Zoo’s role in wildlife conservation. Malaysiakini. Link.
- I. Loh. (2020). Endangered green peafowl to be bred by Taiping Zoo. The Star. Link.
- K. Parkaran. (2021). Oh deer! Sale of animals by Zoo Negara raises alarm. FMT. Link.
- Clean Malaysia. (2018). Nothing wrong at Kemaman Zoo? Nonsense, say Animal Rights Activists. Link.
- Bernama. (2020). Zoo Negara running out of money. The Malaysian Reserve. Link.
- S. Cheema. (2019). Malaysia’s National Zoo is not earning enough. Here’s why. Mashable SE Asia. Link.