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Zookeeper Bando Gen on the shifting relationship between humans and animals

Photo: On Friday 28 November, Peace Boat docked at its first port of call, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo (Joseph Hincks)
On Friday 28 November, Peace Boat docked at its first port of call, Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo (Joseph Hincks)

When a shortage of work in the agricultural sector prompted newly qualified veterinarian Bando Gen to accept a job offer at Hokkaido’s Asahiyama Zoo the situation did not look promising. Zoos in Ueno and Yokohama had bought in exotic animals such as sea otters and koalas but Japan’s northernmost zoo, with its dilapidated enclosures and mainly domestic animals struggled to compete.

The first year of Dr. Bando’s tenure, there were only 10 staff members; visitor numbers dwindled and rumors of bankruptcy abounded. “We didn’t have any budget. At the end of the year we barely had enough money left over to feed the animals,” he said.

But for Bando – who as a child had filled his mother’s house with grasshoppers collected in transparent food containers, and nursed parakeets the local vet was unable to treat – the problems at Asahiyama went beyond economics.

Photo: Bando Gen, Director of Asahiyama Zoo and Board Member at Japanese-Malay NGO Borneo Conservation Trust, talks with volunteer interpreters onboard Peace Boat (Joseph Hincks)
Bando Gen, Director of Asahiyama Zoo and Board Member at Japanese-Malay NGO Borneo Conservation Trust, talks with volunteer interpreters onboard Peace Boat (Joseph Hincks)

As Peace Boat sailed from Yokohama to Kota Kinabalu in Borneo, Bando delivered a series of lectures on the transition from standardized enclosures towards behavioral-based exhibits at Asahiyama Zoo, an approach that would later be emulated across Japan. He also discussed the concept of ongaeshi (giving back) to zoo animals through the conservation of their wild counterparts’ native habitats.

Underlying all this, he said, was the need for humans to re-evaluate their relationship with animals.

Photo: Peace Boat passengers view orangutans at the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park (Joseph Hincks)
Peace Boat passengers view orangutans at the Lok Kawi Wildlife Park (Joseph Hincks)

Zoos first appeared in Japan at the time of the Meiji restoration, as one of many imported western ideas in an era characterized by the governments’ drive to modernize the archipelago.

Historically, the parameters of human/animal relations had been drawn by Buddhist and Shinto philosophies – the latter of which conceived spirit animals in a landscape populated by forest and mountain gods. But as zoos’ popularity increased after the Second World War, a new way of looking at animals emerged, in which species could come in and out of fashion.

Photo: The rapid proliferation of the Sika Deer across the Japanese island of Hokkaido is an example of human disruption of natural environments, according to Bando. (Credit: Masahiro Honda, via Flickr Creative Commons)
The rapid proliferation of the Sika Deer across the Japanese island of Hokkaido is an example of human disruption of natural environments, according to Bando. (Credit: Masahiro Honda, via Flickr Creative Commons)

At Asahiyama Zoo, and others across Japan, visitors were driven by sentimentality and the novelty of new species arrivals. New animals were big draws, but little thought was given to how to appropriately house them. “I didn’t like the way people looked at the zoo. We didn’t want visitors to the zoo to see the animals as cute, or rare,” said Bando.

Although inappropriate enclosures were certainly not unique to Japan, Bando said that they were particularly widespread in the country.

The attitude towards animals in zoos was also applied to wild domestic species. When numbers of the Hokkaido sika deer spiked due to the extinction of predatory wolves in Japan, warmer winters, and an increased prevalence of lawns and unfenced pastureland, they went from being considered cute, rare emblems of Hokkaido to a destructive species. Despite efforts to control their population, sika deer continue to strip forests and damage agricultural lands. ”When we are only concerned with economic losses and traffic accidents we destroy nature and more animals are labeled as destructive,” Bando said.

Photo: A behavioral-based exhibit at Hokkaido’s Asahiyama Zoo. (Credit: By 欅 (talk), via Wikimedia Commons)
A behavioral-based exhibit at Hokkaido’s Asahiyama Zoo. (Credit: By 欅 (talk), via Wikimedia Commons)

Over a period of more than 15 years, Asahiyama Zoo constructed an array of unique animal enclosures in an attempt to enable visitors to see animals in the way that Bando and his colleagues did. Instead of trendy species and novelty shows, the zoo focused on habitats that showcased the natural behavior of the animals under its care: a glass tunnel underneath the penguin enclosure allowed observation of the birds’ underwater flight; a vertical cylindrical tube through which seals could swim provided a 360-degree view; visitors could watch emperor penguin walks in winter, or see polar bears from the perspective of a hunted seal.

The changes heralded a new era of prosperity for the zoo. In 2007, more than three million people visited, a number only surpassed by Ueno Zoo in Japan’s capital.

But changing the way tourists saw zoo animals was only the first part of a larger initiative. “The enjoyment and emotion visitors feel when they see animals in the zoo should somehow benefit those same animals living in their native environment,” Bando said.

Through various fund-raising programs, the Asahiyama Zoo supports the Borneo Conservation Trust (BCT), a Malaysia-Japan collaboration on which Bando serves as an executive board member. A campaign on Peace Boat raised $1,200 for the NGO.

Photo: A Proboscis Monkey at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, one of many endemic endangered species being rehabilitated there. (Joseph Hincks)
A Proboscis Monkey at Lok Kawi Wildlife Park, one of many endemic endangered species being rehabilitated there. (Joseph Hincks)

When Peace Boat docked at Kota Kinabalu last Friday, one group of passengers accompanied Bando on a four-day overland tour to see Borneo’s endemic species in their natural environment. Another group visited the nearby Lok Kawi Wildlife Park to learn about conservation efforts being undertaken there in collaboration with the BCT and other parties.

The Lok Kawi Wildlife Park is a Sabah State Government-funded reserve for rescued animals and a zoo of sorts. Species under its care include Sumatran tigers, orangutans, and proboscis monkeys. The park also encompasses a paddy for the orphaned elephants of fragmented herds, and those who have clashed with humans in agricultural areas.

Image: Extent of deforestation in Borneo 1950-2005, and projection towards 2020 (Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal)
Extent of deforestation in Borneo 1950-2005, and projection towards 2020 (Hugo Ahlenius, UNEP/GRID-Arendal)

Borneo is home to one of the oldest rainforests in the world, but forest coverage has declined by around 30% over the past 40 years according to Science Daily, in part due to the cultivation of palm oil – one of Sabah’s highest export earners. Lok Kawi Wildlife Park’s resident vet Rosa Sipangkui said that this had increased human/animal conflict and fragmented pygmy elephant and orangutan populations, the latter of which has declined from approximately 80,000 in 1950 to 40,000 in 2010.

Palm oil, often touted as an environmentally friendly biofuel, is used in products such as laundry detergent, dishwasher soap, and shampoo, and in snacks like ramen noodles and potato chips. In 2012 Japan imported 559,449 tonnes of palm oil from Malaysia. Bando said that this equates to about 10m2 of oil palm plantation for every Japanese citizen.

“At the wildlife park I was much more aware of the interaction between humans and animals. Not only the physical interaction in the zoo, but also in terms of the fact that I didn’t know that there was a lot of palm oil in the products that I use in my daily life,” said Nakamura Yasuko, a 30-year old tour guide from Kanagawa who attended Bando’s lectures onboard. “It is a trend at the moment for people to use products with natural as opposed to chemical ingredients. People think that these are kinder on the environment, but that’s not always true. It’s made me a lot more aware of the choices I make as a consumer,” she said.

The BCT’s activities include a land procurement programme to ‘buy back’ alienated wetlands and riverine forest for restoration to their original state, a land management programme to secure the connectivity and integrity of ecosystems in protected areas of Sabah’s Mega Biodiversity Corridor, and the construction of a sanctuary to rehabilitate sick or needy elephants that have been injured due to human and elephant conflict incidents.