KUALA LUMPUR: The giant panda enclosure at Kuala Lumpur’s Zoo Negara provided visitors a cooling respite from the hot and humid weather.
On Tuesday morning (Jun 11), the zoo’s biggest attraction, a one-year-old giant panda cub, was enjoying the air-conditioned comfort as it lay sprawled on a wooden platform.
The fluffy female cub, the second offspring of a pair of giant pandas Liang Liang and Xing Xing on loan from China, seemed oblivious that a tourist on the visitor platform, Mr Khaled Jafar from the United Arab Emirates, was trying to snap a close-up picture on his camera phone.
“It’s so adorable and well worth the zoo entrance fee to be so close to a baby panda,” Mr Khaled told CNA. “I also appreciate that I don’t have to jostle with crowds and can take my own time to appreciate them.”
The panda family outnumbered the total number of visitors at the enclosure, a reflection of the declining visitor problem at Zoo Negara.
To address the issue, the zoo's management is banking on new exhibits, including more baby pandas and tiger cubs bred in captivity to attract visitors.
When the giant panda exhibit first opened in 2014, the zoo’s annual visitor numbers surged to 780,000 from 600,000 in 2013.
But the numbers have since dipped. Despite welcoming the giant pandas’ first offspring, Nuan Nuan, in 2015, the zoo’s stream of visitors saw a steady decline, hitting 345,000 in 2017.
The birth of the giant pandas’ second offspring last year coincided with a slight bump in visitor numbers, to around 368,000, but the problem has become apparent.
When CNA visited the zoo on Tuesday morning, it was almost deserted.
Pahang resident Kamal Muhd Din, who was visiting the zoo with his children, noted that the exhibits have “become stale”.
“There are not many new exhibits and it is mostly the same old animals. But we want to continue to support the zoo. It’s an important national park in our capital city, and we want to ensure it continues to operate,” said Mr Kamal.
When interviewed by CNA, the zoo’s deputy president Rosly @ Rahmat Ahmat Lana said he is fully aware of the issue. He added that the zoo is looking to attract foreign and local visitors with better exhibits.
MORE FUNDS NEEDED
Mr Rosly said in the short term, his team is looking to open a petting zoo and a new reptile house, which he said will be the “best in Asia”.
However, he acknowledged that the zoo is still unable to compete with others in the region due to a lack in funding.
“We want to improve our exhibits, but we realise that as compared to other places, we cannot match them. We try to get help from the Ministry of Water, Land and Natural Resources, because we want more funds to develop our exhibits and then get more visitors,” he said.
“We need more money to upgrade the exhibit. These days modern zoos have open concepts, and we want to be like that,” he added.
He maintained that Zoo Negara has been “efficient” with its finances, and has always paid its staff on time. There are also sufficient funds for the food and healthcare of its animals.
There have been earlier reports of the zoo running into financial problems, as well as animals being kept in poor conditions.
SUCCESS IN CAPTIVE BREEDING
Mr Rosly added that the Zoo Negara could also continue to attract more visitors by ramping up its captive breeding programme.
He said that visitors can look forward to seeing the zoo’s four new Malayan tiger cubs, which were born in captivity last month, in its public exhibit soon.
Mr Rosly said the cubs are a sign that the Zoo Negara is making efforts in sustaining the population of Malaysia’s national animal, which is currently classified as critically endangered by the World Wildlife Fund.
“Our Malayan tigers are very exclusive and we pay special attention when caring for them. We have two males and seven females now, and we are lucky that more cubs are joining the adults soon,” he said.
Mr Rosly was also proud of the fact that its giant panda couple has successfully had two cubs, a feat he noted that zoos in neighbouring countries Indonesia and Singapore have not managed.
READ: 'Can't wait until it's too late' - Wildlife Reserves Singapore ramps up breeding efforts for endangered species
While he acknowledged that Zoo Negara may have been lucky in getting a fertile couple, he paid tribute to his members of staff for their efforts in ensuring favourable conditions for the giant pandas to mate naturally.
“We had to make sure they were eating well, so we brought in bamboo from different parts of Malaysia. The pandas refused to eat bamboo from Pahang or Johor, but they liked those from Bagan Datoh (in Perak), so we had to transport them here,” he said.
He added that the current baby panda at Zoo Negara could be sent back to China this year. As part of the “panda diplomacy” arrangement with China, Mr Rosly said the cubs are sent back once they reach the age of two.
But he is confident that Liang Liang and Xing Xing will have another baby soon, and that visitors will return “in droves” to visit the latest addition.
POSITIVE RELATIONSHIP WITH SINGAPORE ZOO
Zoo Negara is also keen to work with other zoos in the region.
Mr Rosly said that Zoo Negara could work with the Singapore Zoo, which he noted has faced difficulties with getting their pair of giant pandas from China, Jia Jia and Kai Kai, to breed.
"I don’t know if we are lucky, but it could be something that we are doing right — the care and attention to detail. If they ask us for advice, we are happy to help. I think getting them the right bamboo was key. If they want our bamboo, we can give it to them,” he said.
READ: Feeding a zoo - Wildlife nutritionist has to cook up a tasty menu for more than 10,000 animals
Both zoos have a strong working relationship and have successfully participated in exchange programmes, he noted.
He recounted how Singapore Zoo had provided Zoo Negara with a Sumatran orangutan.
“They (Singapore Zoo) are not calculative. Some zoos would want an apple for an apple when exchanging animals, but Singapore is different. If they have many animals of a certain species we are looking for, they are willing to exchange,” he said.
Mr Rosly added that Zoo Negara is also looking to introduce a new ‘adopt an animal’ programme for celebrities. He said he thought of the idea following recent reports that Malaysian singer Zarith Sofia, was arrested for allegedly keeping a sun bear in her condominium unit in Kuala Lumpur.
Mr Rosly said there were no plans for the zoo to take in the bear, but it is looking to offer some of its animals for adoption in captivity, where celebrities can adopt newborn animals and look after them financially.
“It cuts down our costs, and at the same time, these celebrities can help them develop into healthy adults. They can’t keep them at home or play with them, but they can be near to the animals and visit on a regular basis,” he said.