Taiwan: Taipei Zoo reflects on last 20 years

What Happened Next? — updates on the TJ Retrospective

By Allen Hsu and Mark Caltonhill

September 1986

Twenty years ago last month, the Free China Journal–the forerunner of this paper–ran an article titled “Zoo on the Move,” which reported that “over 300,000 Taipei residents poured into the streets on Sunday morning Sept. 14 to witness a spectacular hour-and-a-half exodus of 65 Taipei Zoo animals from downtown Yuanshan to Mucha, to their new home in spacious suburb southeast of town.”

Among this last batch of the zoo’s 170 species making the 14.3 kilometer move were “four tigers, five African lions, four swans, 10 peacocks, five angora goats, 12 Taiwan monkeys, one raccoon, two giant turtles and several parrots,” it reported. Zoo Director Wang Kuang-ping was commended for having overcome enormous logistical difficulties in moving the animals, and was quoted as saying he expected the menagerie to grow to around 3,000 species at its new home, which was 30 times bigger than the 72-year-old site used at Yuanshan.

The Taiwan Journal recently called on current Taipei Zoo Director Chen Pao-chung, who has worked at the zoo since earning a Ph.D. from National Taiwan University’s forestry department in 1977, to ask him about the zoo’s 1986 move, developments since then, and plans for the future.

Taiwan Journal: What were the reasons behind the move? After all, Yuanshan is much closer to downtown Taipei than Muzha.

Chen Pao-chung: The number of Taipei residents visiting the zoo at Yuanshan had always been very large, and by 1981, the 5.8-hectare site was already too small. Furthermore, as the zoo was located beneath the flight path of airplanes arriving at Taipei’s Songshan Airport, the noise meant the zoo was unable to provide all the normal functions a modern zoo should. City Hall therefore decided to move the zoo to the Muzha site which, at about 165 hectares, was around 30 times bigger.

You cannot imagine how difficult it is to move a zoo, particularly moving large, nervous animals such as zebras, elephants and giraffes. Some people suggested we should have hired an experienced professional foreign company specializing in moving animals. Due to the extremely high charges, however, we decided to do it on our own. Fortunately, the zoo had an advisor who had 50 years of experience in the capture, training and transportation of animals and, with his guidance, we drew up a carefully thought-out plan to move the animals. We spent more than three months moving the 1,500 animals to their new home. Thousands of people, not just from Taipei but from all over Taiwan, came to give them a warm send-off.

One result of the careful planning, and one of the achievements we were most proud of, was the zero-percent death rate during the move. Before moving the elephants, for example, we placed their carrying boxes in their cages so that they would become familiar with them. When the time to move came, we simply asked them to enter the boxes without even trying to anesthetize them. Each species differed in the method needed to box them, transport them and to acclimatize them to their new environments. The media watched us closely, so this achievement meant a lot to the zoo.

Q: What new animals and facilities have been added since the move, and which have disappeared?

A: A few of the animals that made the move are still alive today, 20 years later. These include orangutans, gibbons, saltwater crocodiles, crab-eating monkeys, rhinos and, until very recently, the zoo’s famous Asian elephants, Lin Wang and Malan. Since that relocation, the zoo has expanded to contain about 3,000 animals belonging to 410 species. New facilities include the insectarium, amphibian and reptile house, penguin house, koala house, Asian tropical rainforest area and a rescue and rehabilitation center. The latter is where our experienced veterinarians help heal injured or sick animals sent to us from around Taiwan. The penguin and koala houses are the most popular sites with visitors. In the future, however, we plan to put more emphasis on the amphibian and reptile house, since these two types of animals are in dire straits due to farmland expansion, pollution by pesticide and habitat destruction. This is the main reason we built the house, which we intend will play a significant role in the study and conservation of amphibians and reptiles in Asia.

Q: What changes have been made to the running of the zoo, and what plans do you have for the future?

A: The old and new zoos differ in several ways. The old zoo focused on entertainment and even held circus-like animal performances, although these ended in 1979. Before that time, the public viewed zoos as places of entertainment. Between 1979 and 1981, we reassessed the zoo’s management, taking on board new concepts from the World Society for the Protection of Animals that zoos should help educate people and protect animals. In 1981, we trained teams of volunteers that then offered educational services to schoolchildren and the general public.

The zoo still had to enhance its conservation function. Animals are raised in zoos for humans to watch, so in return, humans should be responsible for taking care of animals. A zoo without visitors is unable to bring all its functions into full play, however, so new zoos focus on combining the roles of entertainment, education and conservation. As a result of these integrated functions, the zoo’s visitors have always outnumbered those of any other recreational site islandwide.

Research is yet another important function. By understanding animals’ habits and behavior, we can know more about their management and protection. After moving to the new zoo, we started to set up a biological database for animals that can be referenced in the study of wild animals as well as used for educational purposes. In short, therefore, the new zoo’s main emphasis–as well as its main difference with the old zoo–is on conservation.

As for short-term objectives, we plan to establish a research and conservation center and to organize a group of experts to run the center. Obviously we want to do more research on animals, such as completion of the DNA database, studying behavior patterns and undertaking ecological surveys in the wild. Long-term objectives include plans to establish an environmental education center in Taipei, recreational center in Taiwan and wild animal conservation hub in Asia. We also intend to establish sister-zoo relationships with as many zoos around the world as possible, with each zoo focusing on different animals and cooperating with each other.

Q: How do you balance the zoo’s educational, conservation and leisure functions?

A: Visitors go to zoos because they want to relax and have a good time. While enjoying that leisure time, they can also learn about animals through direct observation. This is a crucial point: Only when a person is interested in animals, and fond of them, is he willing to protect them.

To fulfill this educational function, we put up informative signs so visitors can learn while they are having fun. Meanwhile, social changes mean that people are starting to pay more attention to animal welfare, which is in line with the zoo’s long-term goal. To improve animal welfare, we enhanced the exhibition areas, changed the way we feed animals, train our animals appropriately and conduct regular physical checkups.

Animals are no longer trained just to perform. For example, if a well-trained elephant has a problem with its leg, we only need to ask it to sit down and raise its wounded leg for us to examine. It is much easier and safer to do checkups on trained animals than untrained ones. Training, in fact, is an interaction between animals and humans. We never use whips to train animals; instead, we use “positive psychology,” which rewards animals for following directions. Animal welfare is always the top consideration.

Q: What is the zoo’s position on importing pandas to Taiwan?

A: We first applied to import pandas more than 10 years ago. The request was eventually turned down by the government due mainly to politics. Last year, when China’s leaders confirmed they were willing to send a pair of pandas to Taiwan as a gift, this issue was debated fervently. People were also concerned whether there would be a place to house and care for the pandas if they did come. The zoo’s position is very clear. We do not need pandas if importing them is not beneficial to wild animal conservation–otherwise, why would we want pandas? There are, therefore, three conditions to be met before we would accept pandas: first, we must be able to raise them in a healthy way. Second, we should be able to contribute to panda conservation. And third, we should be able to contribute to the conservation of Taiwan’s wild animals through this. We anticipate that if pandas come, they will draw attention to Taiwan’s own endangered species and help raise more funds from local businesses that could be used to conserve species on the verge of extinction. Normally, very few people or businesses really care much about wild animals, so we hope the arrival of such a popular animal could generate more resources and allow these resources to be diverted to other animals in need.

We think pandas will come sooner or later, so we continue to prepare by studying pandas, observing pandas in situ and constructing a panda house, which is scheduled for completion next year. We will continue these preparations, but whether or not we get pandas is not something we at the zoo will decide.

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