Endangered animals can get a lifeline in zoos, such as these Banteng Bos javanicus in Lok Kawi Zoo, Sabah. Pic by Cede Prudente

Saving zoos during Covid-19 crisis – should we? (Pt 2)

With huge income loss during the Covid-19 crisis, is it time to look at the role that Malaysian zoos play in wildlife conservation? This is the second of the two-parter on zoos and aquaria in Macaranga’s Taking Stock series.

WITH THE Covid-19 pandemic under control, zoos and aquaria in Malaysia might have averted a funding crisis for now. However, the question remains as to why wildlife is kept captive in the first place.

By definition, a zoo is a place where captive wild animals are exhibited. It is short for ‘zoological park or garden’. Meanwhile, marine animals are exhibited in aquaria.

(Photo: Endangered animals can get a lifeline in zoos, such as these Banteng Bos javanicus in Lok Kawi Zoo, Sabah. Pic by Cede Prudente)

However, the rise of the local conservation movement in the 1970s has prompted demands for these parks to evolve beyond mere exhibition space.

Dating zoos: The notion of a zoo emerged in London almost 200 years ago and the London zoo is still running. In Malaysia, the first zoo was built in Johor, over 90 years ago in 1928 and it too, still operates.

“If a zoo doesn’t think about the wild relatives of the animals it is keeping, what makes it different from a circus, where people pay to see a spectacle?” asks a conservationist who asked to remain anonymous.

“If all you do is tell people that lions are 6 feet long and have 2 cubs a year, that’s just information. Modern zoos need to find legitimacy by highlighting the fact that these animals exist in the wild.

“And if they are in trouble in the wild, something is being done about it. Otherwise, it’s just a business.”

Zoo functions

In Malaysia, ‘exhibition’ does not even figure in Department of Wildlife and National Parks Peninsular Malaysia (PERHILITAN)’s definition of the roles played by zoos and aquaria.

Instead, the roles mentioned are “research, education, training, conservation and recreation” but with the caveat that “the functions that each park is able to fulfil depends on its available facilities and expertise.”

There is a holy grail of functions whereby parks can serve conservation, says Dr Kevin Lazarus, chairman of the Malaysian Association of Zoological Parks and Aquaria (MAZPA) (see below).

How zoos and aquaria can serve conservation
  • Conservation education
  • Conservation breeding (for reintroduction to the wild)
  • Contribution to conservation (funding, expertise, collaborations with scientists)
  • Maintaining populations which are at risk (of becoming endangered in the wild)

— Dr Kevin Lazarus

While all these functions are yet to be fulfilled by local zoos, Kevin says the easiest to implement is conservation education, which “all parks do”.

Certainly, in Malaysia where 70% of the population live in towns and cities, their value for nature education is undeniable.

“Zoos are important focal points for conservation education for urbanites,” says Dr Melvin Gumal, Director of Malaysia Program, Wildlife Conservation Society.

“This is especially so if there are not many alternatives to appreciating wildlife.”

Kevin agrees. “There’s nothing like being able to experience animals first-hand. Of course, if you can see them in the forest, it’s better. But how many people can go to the forest?

“And when you are there, the chance of actually seeing wild animals is actually very low.”

Encountering wildlife in the forest might be optimal, but in reality, spotting them is difficult. (YH Law)

In educational outreach, a minimum is good signage, he says. MAZPA is encouraging its members to list animals’ wild habitats and their endangered status. “Of course, everyone can improve; at the end, it is up to the parks.”

But active educational programmes are more effective, he finds. In Taiping Zoo and Night Safari, of which he is a director, this is borne out in the heartening responses to classes and guided tours for students and adults.

“When people stand in front of a tiger exhibit and the tiger suddenly jumps into a pond, they are startled because they think cats can’t swim. It’s a chance to tell them more and increase their appreciation of the wild animal.”

Better management

The management of Malaysian zoos and aquaria has come a long way, says Kevin.

The linchpin to this was the 2010 revision to the Wildlife Conservation Act and the accompanying 2012/2013 regulations, which specifically address park licensing and management.

Thereafter, parks were given two years to comply to regulations or close down.

“So from seven to eight years ago, we started seeing improvements,” says Kevin.

Guided tours in zoos are an effective way to educate children and adults alike. (Taiping Zoo & Night Safari)

“Now, in terms of the size of exhibits, all have complied. They are focussing now on layout and landscaping – every park should be doing this – as well as good signage and educational activities especially for schools.

“We don’t allow animal shows any more – the focus has to be natural behaviours and education.”

Even during the pandemic, PERHILITAN as the park licensing agency for Peninsular Malaysia, asserts that park operational regulations and the Act were adhered to by the licensed parks, particularly in terms of animal welfare.

Gene banks

Wildlife Conservation Society’s Gumal also highlights how important zoos are as genetic arks.

“There are … instances where some of the trafficked wild animals (that have been rescued by authorities) cannot be released and zoos become a useful home for them and their wild genes. The keeping of these animals forms an insurance (against the loss of wildlife).”

Malaysia’s National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016–2025 recognises zoos and aquaria as ex-situ (not in the wild) conservation solutions. Specifically, they are part of the strategy to ‘safeguard key ecosystems, species and genetic diversity’.

Malaysia’s National Policy on Biological Diversity 2016–2025 states that not every species can be conserved in the wild. (Source: Ministry of Energy and Natural Resources)

“Although the preferred way of conserving wild species is within healthy natural habitats,” states the policy, “we need to acknowledge that not all species or varieties of animals and plants can be guaranteed to survive under current conditions in their natural habitats.”

The policy adds that it is crucial that “all zoos and wildlife parks are managed to a high standard, safeguard animal welfare and promote conservation”.

For Malaysia, continued forest loss and habitat fragmentation make ex-situ conservation more crucial than ever.

Progress on targets

According to Malaysia’s latest national report to the Convention on Biological Diversity (4 March 2020), progress on endangered species conservation targets has been made “but at an insufficient rate”.

Specifically, these are targets to conduct conservation assessments of plant and animal species and to enact legislation to protect endangered and threatened species.

However, the report highlights the success of government wildlife rescue and captive breeding programmes to rehabilitate threatened species.

Ex-situ conservation of Borneon orangutans by facilities like the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre is a model for Malaysian conservation. (Cede Prudente)

In Sabah and Sarawak, the report singles out the rehabilitation programmes for the iconic and critically endangered Borneon orangutan (Pongo pygmaeus).

Around 150 animals are being rehabilitated respectively by the Semenggoh and Matang Wildlife Centres, run by the Sarawak Forestry Department, and the Sepilok Rehabilitation Centre, managed by the Sabah Wildlife Department.

In Peninsular Malaysia, the report notes PERHILITAN’s successful breeding programmes for 12 endangered species (see list).

No figures were available for each species but these include the Gaur (Bos gaurus hubbacki) and the Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris jacksoni), both of whose populations are estimated at a mere 150–200 in the wild.

Species in PERHILITAN’s breeding and reintroduction programmes
  • Sambar Deer (Rusa unicolor)
  • Gaur (Bos gaurus hubbacki)
  • Common Barking Deer (Muntiacus muntjac)
  • Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus)
  • Malayan porcupine (Hystrix brachyura)
  • Mountain peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron inopinatum)
  • Great argus (Argusianus argus)
  • Malayan peacock-pheasant (Polyplectron malacense)
  • Green peafowl (Pavo muticus)
  • River terrapin (Batagur affinis)
  • Malayan tiger (Panthera tigris)
  • Sun Bear (Helarctos malayanus)
The world’s first Malayan tapir twins were captive born in a PERHILITAN Wildlife Conservation Centre in 2007. As of April 2020, 16 tapirs have been captive born in that centre. (PERHILITAN)

These programmes are carried out in PERHILITAN’s 11 Wildlife Conservation Centres and 2 Wildlife Rescue Centres as well as in government and private zoos.

The report’s highlighted breeding programmes are largely carried out by wildlife conservation centres – different from zoos – whose role it is to rehabilitate wildlife.

However, PERHILITAN emphasises that zoos are “important partners” in its breeding and rescue programmes.

“As the agency responsible for carrying out wildlife conservation activities, we take the approach of cooperating and sharing expertise with parks to help us carry out programmes.

“As such, we are of the opinion that the existence of zoos and permanent exhibits are relevant and play important roles in supporting the department’s efforts in conservation…”

Partners in rehabilitation

PERHILITAN adds that besides being actively involved in wildlife breeding, parks also house wildlife that has been given up by the public, injured, seized or born in captivity with the department’s permission.

In addition, the parks help with the animals’ rehabilitation process before the department releases them back to suitable habitats; those with permanent injuries and cannot return to the wild, becoming “ambassadors for public awareness”.

Taiping Zoo alone has successfully bred 14 endangered species. The breeding programme of one of these, the Milky stork (Mycteria cinerea) goes back to the 1990s, says Kevin, giving the zoo decades of scientific data and experience on breeding and reintroducing them to the wild.


According to this year’s country report to the CBD, while the government remains the major source of funding for biodiversity, species conservation as a whole “faces challenges of securing consistent funding”.

Conservation and other environmental sectors have traditionally not been a priority for the government of Malaysia. For example, in Budgets 2019 and 2020, the federal allocation specifically for biodiversity was around RM60 million out of around RM300 billion—a mere 0.0002%.

Addressing this will go a long way in helping wildlife conservation in all its forms. That includes boosting the roles played by zoos and aquaria.


“It would be hypocritical to completely ignore the viable conservation solutions offered by zoos,” says the conservationist. “And I must give credit to many zoos who have created ways to fund themselves or have managed to get grants.

“But zoos and authorities must ensure there is a sustainable financing plan prior to operations. Arguably, the fate of current captive individuals and potential future ex-situ programmes to save their wild brethren, are at stake.”

Malaysia has had to navigate had at least four major financial or health crises since 1997. As this crisis is being wrestled under control, are parks ready to build more resilience against such future shocks?

Not yet, say park operators. Currently, they have their hands fully tied with fund-raising and enticing visitors back. Other models will have to wait.

This concludes our 2-parter on Malaysian zoos and aquaria during the pandemic. Part 1 looked at the financial impact on these parks and how they dealt with them.

This feature has research done by Darshana Dinesh Kumar and contributions from naturalist/photographer Cede Prudente. Darshana also worked on the map which features icons made by Freepik from www.flaticon.com.

Reporting for this story was supported by Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

This feature on zoos and aquaria is part of Macaranga‘s series, ‘Taking Stock’, where we examine how environmental sectors in Malaysia are responding to Covid-19 and a new federal government.