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Another tiger perishes at Indonesia’s ‘Death Zoo’

  • Allegations of mistreatment and corruption have plagued the Surabaya Zoo. A cascade of animals have perished at the facility.
  • Some are calling for the zoo to be closed. An online petition to that effect has more than 800,000 signatures.
  • Others believe it should stay open, with improved management.

Another tiger has died at Indonesia’s infamous Surabaya Zoo, once again bringing attention to the negligence, mismanagement and corruption that has plagued the institution.

Zoo veterinarian Irmanu Ommy said the 16-year-old tiger, named Rama, had a history of heat abnormalities, and had been lethargic in the past.

“There was a change compared to the other tigers, such as not eating,” Ommy told Mongabay. Zookeepers attempted to feed him with special tools, but a buildup of fluid in the abdomen suggests congestive heart failure. Tigers can live over 20 years in captivity.

Zoo director Aschta Boestani Tajudin said the tigers are checked and vaccinated monthly, but recordkeeping needs to be improved to identify changes in health.

Further, Aschta is worried that inbreeding is a problem among the tiger population. Of the nine remaining animals (six females, three males), all but one come from the same bloodlines. Indonesia Safari Park donated a male, named Wira, in September last year.

“We have record of siblings mating, and all the offspring died,” Aschta said. “If the interbreeding is too close, or if inbreeding occurs, recessive traits can become dominant. Although it cannot be certain what diseases will appear, they can be a cause of death.”

Rama a day before his death. Photo courtesy of the Surabaya Zoo
Rama a day before his death. Photo courtesy of the Surabaya Zoo
Aschta Tajudin shows photos of the dead tiger. Photo courtesy of the Surabaya Zoo
Surabaya Zoo director Aschta Tajudin shows photos of the dead tiger. Photo courtesy of the Surabaya Zoo

Dubbed Indonesia’s “Death Zoo,” the Kebun Binatang Surabaya (KBS) is the country’s oldest and largest facility. It has made international headlines in recent years after nearly 100 animals perished in less than 12 months. Among the dead were several endangered orangutans, two rare Komodo dragons and a lion who strangled itself on the cable used to open his gate. In 2012, an 18-kilogram (40-pound) ball of plastic was found inside the stomach of a deceased giraffe.

In 2010, the Indonesian government revoked KBS’s permits, and turned over control of the facility to a team lead by Tony Sumampau, secretary general of the Indonesian Zoo and Aquarium Association, and director of Indonesia Safari Park, also known as Taman Safari.

Sumampau was subsequently accused of illegally shifting animals to his own parks, leaving the sick and weak individuals at the zoo. He defends the moves as needed to increase genetic diversity and claims the disrepair of KBS was due to lazy zookeepers hired by corrupt city officials who hoped the facility would fail so they could sell the land. The real estate, located in downtown Surabaya, is thought to be worth over $600 million.

The Surabaya Zoo. Photo by Sakurai Midori/Wikimedia Commons
The Surabaya Zoo. Photo by Sakurai Midori/Wikimedia Commons

In January 2014, responding to public pressure over continued animal deaths, then president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono returned the zoo to city management. In August of that year, KBS received new wildlife conservation permits which would allow for renovations and improvements.

“I have not seen any change in the past three years,” Sumampau told Mongabay. “The acting director cannot do much as it is still controlled by the city. [They] need an independent team of experienced staff to manage the zoo…professionals who know about zoo management and wildlife.”

Tony Sumampau. Photo courtesy of Twitter
Tony Sumampau. Photo courtesy of Twitter

Overcrowding has been a persistent problem. “There are so many surplus animals in small cages and [many are] inbred,” he explained. “They should transfer most of the surplus animals out to make room for the remaining animals. The modern zoo does not need a large quantity of animals.”

According to the current administrators, the 15-hectare KBS contains nearly 2,400 animals, while the ideal capacity is around 700. Some enclosures contain five times the acceptable number of individuals. Surabaya’s mayor has vowed to improve the management and animal welfare and recently began looking into transferring the surplus to other zoos.

Ian Singleton, a former zookeeper and the director of the Sumatran Orangutan Conservation Programme, is in favor of closing KBS. He believes it is a classic case of mismanagement.

“There is a not a single government-managed zoo in Indonesia that comes anywhere even near acceptable in terms of standards,” Singleton told Mongabay. “The only ones that achieve anything even half decent are all private.”

A dead Javan rusa at the Surabaya Zoo is shown in 2014. Photo by Petrus Riski/Mongabay
A dead Javan rusa at the Surabaya Zoo is shown in 2014. Photo by Petrus Riski/Mongabay

At the time of the giraffe’s high-profile death, Singleton wrote in the Jakarta Post, “We should be able to evaluate the role of zoos in Indonesia, to close down the bad ones and encourage the better ones to get even better, but this will never happen if their owners and managers see them only as a source of extra pocket money.”

Indonesia’s environment ministry reports that only half of the country’s 58 registered zoos have sought accreditation. Of those, only four received an A grade.

Although Sumampau agrees that poor management is the critical issue, he disagrees that the zoo should be closed.

“I think closing a city zoo like Surabaya Zoo is not a solution,” he said. “It has many roles and functions that benefit the public, such as education, breeding of valuable endangered species, awareness program for conservation, research, and recreation – especially for the Surabaya community. The main problem for Surabaya Zoo is the lack of expertise in wildlife management.” petition urging the Indonesian government to close the facility has collected 810,000 signatures in the last four years.

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