At the same time that I was immensely enjoying myself at the Belize Zoo, a much darker scenario was unfolding at a very different zoo across the globe. Indonesia's Surabaya Zoo has also been known as "The Zoo of Death", where animals - including highly endangered native species - languish and sometimes starve in atrocious enclosures. The international backlash has been pretty predictable, with calls for the place to be shut down. You here similar howls of outrage often when zoos of the developing world make the international zoo, especially those that are in areas that are poverty stricken, war-torn, or both.
In recent years, we can look at the zoos of Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine... Does Syria even have any zoos? I really hope not.
But back to Indonesia and its "Zoo of Death". Or to Belize, for that matter, and its charmingly beautiful zoo. We tend to think of zoos as American and European institutions, and they are, but zoos are found across the globe. Mexico City has an excellent zoo, as does Sao Paulo. Johannesburg's isn't supposed to be half bad, and there are many excellent zoos in Japan. Australian zoos make up for their relative paucity in exotic (to Aussies) species by displaying that country's rich, unique wildlife, found nowhere else on earth.
But countries in Africa, in Southeast Asia, in Latin America, what about them? Sure, we mentioned some big cities in those regions that have good zoos, but in a country like, let's say, Tanzania, is there a need for zoos? It's a poor country with pressing problems - debt, development, disease, literacy - and while relatively stable itself, it's located amid other countries that are decidedly less so. Though Tanzania sees its fair share of tourists, a zoo probably wouldn't be that big of a draw to them - they come to see animals in the wild, on the Serengeti or Ngorongoro. What would the point of a zoo be? Who would pay for it? Who would go?
As near as I could figure during my visit to that country, the closest thing to a zoo in all of Tanzania was a snake park located on the outskirts of its safari capital, Arusha. Some tanks of snakes, pits of lizards, a row of bird cages, and a pool of crocodiles...
So, except for the snake park, I didn't see a zoo in Tanzania. You know what else I didn't see over the course of five months? A single large (as in, bigger than a kitten) wild animal living outside of a protected area. In the parks I saw elephants and lions, leopards and hippos, giraffes and zebras, and even some of the last black rhinos in the country. Outside... I think I remember seeing some blue monkeys once. I think.
Of course, I was going to those protected areas on safari. Most of the local people were not. I asked many townspeople and city dwellers if they'd ever seen a lion, or a giraffe, or a baboon. Very few had. The parks were too far from the cities, too hard to get to, and who had the time or the money? These were working folks, trying to make a living, they didn't have time for, and here the truth came out, frivolities. I got the impression that most people tolerated wild animals for the hard foreign currency that they brought to their country. If they ever thought that tourists wouldn't visit their country? Then to hell with the wildebeest.
The idea then got planted in my head about the potential value of a zoo in Tanzania. A few, maybe, scattered around the urban areas - Dar es Salaam, Arusha, Moshi. They'd be very different from the zoos of the US and Europe; when I saw the Belize Zoo, I realized that that was what I'd been envisioning. They'd feature native species only - ones that could be housed and fed cheaply compared to imported exotics. There wouldn't be any studbooks or breeding and transfer plans, just animals taken as pets, or found orphaned or injured. No especially large animals, either - I'd imagine monkeys, porcupines, mongooses, hyraxes, and some birds and reptiles. A focus on smaller species would allow for larger, better, more natural enclosures. Nothing that would dazzle an American tourist, but that's fine. That's not who the audience would be.
The audience would be the Tanzanian people (or, depending on where you operate, the Guatemalan people, or the Bangladeshi people, or what have you). It would serve as more of an educational nature center than what we consider a zoo, with the express purpose of introducing people and their native animals. Children could grow up with an appreciation for the animals of their country, including those species that they seldom see. It might help foster the growth of a new generation of homegrown conservationists and naturalists. It would wildlife more firmly on the radar in the parts of the country where political and economic power are wielded. Perhaps, even like the Belize Zoo, it could become a focal point for research, rehabilitation, and possibly even reintroduction programs. Given the right local leadership, it could serve as a gadfly for conservation, reminding those in power about the importance of protecting wildlife.
Changes are supposedly underway in Indonesia, with new leadership being brought in to redirect the Surabaya Zoo. Hopefully it's not too late to turn it around. A bad zoo is a blight on a culture and a torment for the animals living there. A good zoo can be a tremendous, positive force for conservation, either on the international scale (such as the Wildlife Conservation Society), or the very local one.