In China’s zoos, the African exhibits rule the roost. Most children are barely through the gate before rushing off toward the lions, zebras, giraffes, or hippos. There, they excitedly rattle off all they’ve been taught about exotic ecosystems like the Serengeti to their parents.
Ask them about domestic species, however, and you’ll get blank stares. Apart from the obvious favorites like pandas, crested ibises, or Chinese alligators, few Chinese are familiar with their country’s rich array of native wildlife. High-quality nature documentaries focused on China are few and far between, and — with the exception of pandas — few Chinese zoos roll out the red carpet for native species.
Jane Goodall once said: “Only if we understand, will we care. Only if we care, will we help. Only if we help shall all be saved.” But when it comes to mainland Chinese wildlife, there is little understanding and even less care.
This isn’t the case in Taiwan. Its zoos emphasize animals native to the island, both out of a desire to improve visitor experiences and with an eye toward advancing conservation goals. For example, the Taipei Zoo has a dedicated indigenous animal section for local species like the Formosan wild boar, the Formosan sika deer, and the Taiwan serow.
The zoo also has an exhibition area dedicated to Taiwanese macaques that hosts occasional activities meant to teach visitors about the species. In Taiwan, conflicts between territorial macaques and encroaching humans are serious problems, and the Taipei Zoo teaches children how to observe macaque behavior for signs of danger. This is just one example of the kinds of things zoos can accomplish when exhibiting native species, including improving understanding about local wildlife, raising awareness, and promoting conservation.
There are actually many native species on display in zoos on the Chinese mainland, especially in public zoos — they just suffer from a lack of attention from zoo visitors and managers alike. Take the Deer Garden at the Beijing Zoo, for example. Visitors are rewarded with glimpses of a host of native deer species: hairy-fronted muntjacs, Reeves’s muntjacs, Thorold’s deer, sika deer, bharal, argali, alpine ibexes, and more.
But for all this diversity, it’s clear that their habitats are largely bare and crudely designed, and there has been little effort to make the section interesting or memorable for visitors. Located in the most remote northwestern corner of the park, it’s entirely possible to visit the zoo and never know about the garden at all.
Fortunately, Chinese zoos are finally realizing just how poorly they’ve been serving domestic species over the years, and many have begun investing more in the display, conservation, and breeding of native animals.
Water deer graze at the Shanghai Zoo, Shanghai, Feb. 14, 2019. Courtesy of Chen Min
The Shanghai Zoo is leading the way. It has invested in exhibits for a number of species native to the Shanghai area, including water deer, Reeves’s muntjacs, masked palm civets, and raccoon dogs. These animals may be small and easily overlooked, but they are important parts of Shanghai’s past and present and deserve our attention.
Take the water deer, for example. As recently as the late-19th century, water deer were found throughout Shanghai and the surrounding region, but by the beginning of the 20th century, urbanization and habitat loss had largely driven them out. In recent years, however, scientists and conservation workers have reintroduced the species to the region, beginning with a number of parks in the city’s suburbs where they’ve since thrived.
In the Shanghai Zoo’s section for local species, water deer are given star treatment. Their habitat is a lush, sloping landscape dotted with rare trees, shrubs, and bamboo. By treating the species as an important part of Shanghai’s ecosystem, the park gets visitors to care about their fate.
The Chongqing Zoo, located in southwestern China, is also building up a collection of local species. In addition to clouded leopards and the rare Asian golden cats, it’s created a beautiful habitat for its leopard cats — an often neglected species, due to its relative ubiquity.
Even poorly funded zoos in more remote parts of the country are getting in on the act. The zoo in Xining, the capital of the northwestern province of Qinghai, lacks the funds to import many animals from abroad. But it’s assembled a strong lineup of species native to the region and nearby Tibetan Plateau, including snow leopards and Pallas’s cats.
Not only does this strategy help cut costs, it can reduce maintenance outlays as well. Xining, for example, is located more than 2,000 meters above sea level, and winter there is bitterly cold. Keeping tropical animals alive and comfortable in such an environment is cost-prohibitive for a small local zoo, but the Pallas’s cat is already acclimated to such conditions.
For the past 20 years, the most popular kind of zoo in China has been more akin to a theme park than a scientific outpost. Amusement complexes like Chimelong Safari Park are run entirely by commercial principles, and the types of animals they display are usually determined more by wildlife trader inventories rather than conservation needs. These parks don’t place any particular emphasis on conservation and so rarely display native species.
This is a shame, since with strong rosters of local fauna, zoos can play an important role in local conservation and research work. One day, China’s zoos could become centers for breeding and reintroducing endangered species into the wild. To do so, however, will require them to adopt a tripartite vision based on scientific research, conservation, and education — not just entertainment. And what better place to start than at home?
Translator: Matt Turner; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: A Pallas’s cat stares at the camera in Xining Wildlife Park, Xining, Qinghai province, Sept. 14, 2018. Courtesy of Chen Min)