Recent analysis of donations made to Zoo Negara via e-commerce platforms show that Malaysians are much more inclined to support imported animals over native species.
Malaysians give more money for “exotic” imported animals like cheetahs and pandas than local ones like orangutans and sun bears.
“It seems like the exotic animals people see in movies and National Geographic documentaries are better received by Malaysians,” Andrew Sebastian, a well-regarded naturalist, and president and founder of Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia, told MalaysiaNow.
As an example, he cited Liang Liang and Xing Xing, two giant pandas imported from China at a cost of RM25 million. The pair were all the rage when they arrived back in 2014, attracting huge, curious crowds every day.
Pandas and other imported animals being given so much care and support in Malaysia is nothing new.
“It looks like it’s sexier for kids as well as grown-ups to be connected to the pandas, the lions, more than our own local species because awareness is pretty low in terms of our appreciation for local wildlife,” Sebastian said.
Coming from different climates and often with unique dietary needs, imported animals are welcomed into the country’s zoos despite being difficult to look after.
Does this mean that local animals are less worthy of care?
Why do chimpanzees, pandas and cheetahs attract the crowds and, according to the analysis, the money?
Shariffa Sabrina Syed Akil, environmental activist and president of the Association for the Protection of the Natural Heritage of Malaysia said public perception is a major part of the problem.
“It’s because Malaysians are under the impression that our native animals are still in abundance and can easily be seen if we go to our local jungle, hence they are not exotic enough and don’t need help and support to be saved,” she said.
Sebastian agreed. “The public buys into the romantic notion that exotic foreign animals are more worthy, which in turn leads to increased support for all imported animals.”
That being said, naturalists agree that caging local wild animals in zoos and rehabilitation centres should not be seen as an ideal policy.
They say that confining animals should only be done as a last resort when they are under threat in their natural habitat and require human intervention to save them.
“The public buys into the romantic notion that exotic foreign animals are more worthy, which in turn leads to increased support for all imported animals.”
Shariffa is no fan of zoos. She maintains the business of caging animals and training them to do tricks to entertain humans should end for good, and she hopes Malaysia will be among the first to implement this.
“Instead of zoos, the public should be able to visit animals in their own natural habitat,” she said. “Wild animal rehabilitation centres too can be open for the public to visit and see the importance of giving wildlife their natural habitat and freedom.”
She said it is imperative for the government and Zoo Negara to acknowledge and highlight that local wildlife is threatened. Then they can start educating the public on the importance of caring for endangered native animals.
“Zoo Negara fund-raising campaigns must treat all animals equally and should not give options for donors to target only a preferred species,” she added.
Sebastian meanwhile said Zoo Negara has a big role to play in educating Malaysians about all animals, both foreign and native.
He maintained that zoos should give special attention to local species, especially where there is a higher chance of people seeing them in their native habitat.
He believes that there is still a lot of work to do educating Malaysians about their very own unique, endangered wildlife and this is a job for everybody, not just zoos.
Tourism Malaysia launched its Cuti-Cuti Malaysia “Santai di Zoo” campaign this week, aimed at attracting people to visit local zoos.
While there with the kids, relaxing and gawping at all the expensive exotic animals on display, perhaps a few of them will chip in a little to save some of their very own often ignored, endangered local wildlife.