Zoos linked to illegal wildlife trade
BANGKOK – When you visit a zoo and see wildlife encased there, have you ever been fascinated with the creatures that rare to see in natural scene? If you did, you should know that zoo does not only provide you a fascination with nature, but it also has an important role in wildlife hunting and trade.
Even though most of zoos are operated under good intention, to be a natural classrooms for urban residents and conserve wild animals, the good intention was became weak point that hunters and wildlife brokers always use it as a legal tool for illegal trade.
A hornbill is a good example to explain the relationship between zoo operation and wildlife hunting and trade.
Hornbill’s are a protected species under the Royal Forest Department (RFD)’s Wildlife Protection and Conservation Act. By the law, nobody can own any protected species except for the ones who take care of the animals before the enforcement of the law. Those animals owners have to register their wildlife with the RFD, and when they do not want to feed them, they could distribute them to whomever allowed to operated public zoo.
It is rare to see hornbill in natural scene, due to the behaviour of hornbill which always live in deep jungle where has big trees contain with large hollow for the bird to breed and where has a lot of ton sai banyan which is an important food of the bird.
Thus, most of zoo operators, both under the Zoological Park Organisation (ZPO) and private operators, wanted to own hornbills for attracting visitors and tourists.
An official of a zoo under the ZPO disclosed that almost hornbills of the zoo were bought from villagers. The source, who did not want to release his name and the zoo, told The Nation that it is necessary for zoo officials to make a contact with hunter and wildlife traders.
”We, the zoo, confessed that sometimes we wanted their help to provide rare species for us,” he said.
However, he said, the zoo normally did not make an order with hunters and wildlife traders. He added that the ordinary trade of zoo begin when villagers, as a middle man of the bird trade, approached the zoo and proposed to sell wild animals they have.
”Even we don’t want it, but we have to buy. Unless we do that, villagers will kill it,” he said.
According to the source, a centre of hornbill trade is in Narathiwat, where is a major habitat of the bird. There are three small shops in the province where bought hornbills directly from hunters and distributed to whomever wanted it, including ZPO’s zoo.
When brokers proposed to sell the bird, the zoo’s staffs, included vet, will rapidly go for watching the bird, they bought it and transferred to the zoo.
The source said mature hornbills are often sold during October to December because it is a time that ton sai’s fruit are ripe and the bird will gather at the trees, that easy for hunters to catch them.
Meanwhile, a baby or juvenile hornbill will be offered during Feb to May is the bird’s breeding season. Hornbill has to breed in a hollow, and after a baby bird was hatched it has to stay in the hollow for about four months. Hunters climbed up the tree and seized baby hornbills when its parents were seeking food for feeding it.
The cost of hornbill depends on a species and age of the bird.
Helmeted Hornbill has highest cost, about Bt18,000 for the mature one while, Bt20,000 for a baby, due to its most beutiful shape and rare to see. For adult Grate Hornbill is about Bt5,000, and Bt6,000 is a cost of Wreathed Hornbill, while a Bushycrested Hornbill is only Bt3,000.
A baby hornbill has higher price than an adult. A baby Wreathed Hornbill and a Rhinoceros Hornbill is Bt7,000, while a juvenile Whitecrowned Hornbill is about Bt10,000.
However, zoo likes to buy an adult one because it is easier to take care.
The first day of hornbill as an captive pet, was too bad, both for the bird and for the officials. According to the source, many hornbills died after a few weeks since they did not eat all food provided by the zoo’s staffs. However, many hornbills were gradually provided to zoo’s staffs and vets for learning how to feed the bird. At last, many hornbills survive and only only handful of the birds died in the cage.
The official said villagers know that all ZPO’s zoo would buy the bird and other wildlife species they provided, so they always hunt wild animals for selling. However, he said, the zoo is the last destination of animal hunters and traders recognised because of a lower payment than private sectors.
Most of hunters and animals traders always sell the animals to private zoos and individual persons both in domestic and overseas. They (hunters) often claimed with RFD’s authorities and whoever related to the issue that the animals are provided for ZPO’s zoo. Actually, they have a zoo’s documents to show the authorities.
When animals sold to private zoos, the operators can use a loophole of law which allow zoos operators can exchange wild animals species with overseas zoos. So some indigenous species including hornbill were transferred to foreign countries under the exchange programme, but the hidden truth is the illegal wildlife trade.
Only animals that hunters could not sell, will be proposed to ZPO’s zoo.
Pisit na Pattalung, ZPO’s director general, admitted that all five zoos of the ZPO were dragged to relate with illegal wildlife trade. However, he said, the zoos have to buy all wild animals that provided by villagers.
”If you wanted to condemn me, do that, but I wanted to let you know that I just can’t see death animal before my eyes. Do you think that if I don’t buy the animals, they will be released back to the forest? No, it’s not. Villagers will ignore them and leave them die,” he said.
”We have good shelters for them, so there is no reason to leave them in a small and dirty cage of hunters.” He insisted that the action of zoo is the best thing for wild animals since it can provide good shelter for them.
Pisit said zoo operation is not a beginning of illegal wildlife trade, but the failure in natural resources management of the RFD. ”Why it ‚Äì RFD ‚Äì did not do the best to protect those wild animals? Why it cannot save the habitat of wild animals? If the animals are still brought of the forest, we have to buy it otherwise it will extinct.” he pointed out.
However, Pisit said zoos had an important role in wild animals conservation even it reluctant to involve in animals trade procedure. He added that zoo might be the last place that can save wild animals for the next generation.
”You always say wild animals should live in natural forest, but where is the fertile forest for them. As you see, there are many wild animal species that extinct from natural scene, but still remain in zoos.”