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China's Wildlife Parks: Not Quite the Animal Haven

Since it opened on November 28, 1995, the Shanghai Wildlife Park has proven to be a huge success, according to a May 27 report in the Shanghai Morning Post.

Xu Jianzhong from the park's management department said each tiger or lion gets between six and eight kilograms of meat each day, fortified with vitamins and minerals.

But, according to the newspaper report, things aren't all hunky-dory in the park.

According to the park's tour guide, five daily performances are arranged for visitors, involving sea lions, lions, tigers, elephants, monkeys, and dog and horse races. During one of the performances on May 26, an accident happened. A monkey was to have jumped from the back of an elephant onto the backs of two alpacas. The monkey missed and fell to the ground with a heavy thud. The audience was aghast, and some people were overheard saying: "How many times has the poor thing hurt itself during practice?"

At noon the same day, while the lions and tigers slept, the newspaper reporter witnessed a keeper encouraging visitors to pose for photos, and proceeded to beat the lions and tigers with an iron pole. He said: "We've removed their claws, so they can't hurt you."

Mang Ping, an expert in animal welfare from Friends of Nature, a Chinese environmental non-governmental organization (NGO), said that wild animals in most Chinese wildlife parks are in a bad situation. Some parks cannot even guarantee the animals' basic needs of food and water. "Felines," for example, "suffer from cataracts mainly because of malnutrition," she added.

From January 2003 to October 2004, Mang and eight university student volunteers conducted an investigation into animals in the country's 21 wild parks (including some urban zoos) and published the Investigation Report on China's Wildlife Parks last November.

According to the report, the number of daily performances that wildlife parks and zoos conduct always exceed specified limits, especially during weekends and holidays.

For example, bears in a zoo in Hefei, Anhui Province, give six to seven performances each day, working a total of some 70 hours a week.

The report stressed that some animals, by nature, require 15 hours sleep a day to function properly.

Further, some performances involve animals doing dangerous stunts such as high-wire walking and leaping through rings of fire.

"We frequently see animals being whipped by their trainers if they hesitate during a performance," said a volunteer from the investigation group. "Wildlife parks in foreign countries don't subject their animals to dangerous performances, but they do in China because that's how they attract visitors."

Living conditions in many wildlife parks are poor. Although many parks are sprawling, the land is for the more for the benefit of visitors than the animals. It is not uncommon to find many animals squeezed into a single enclosure or cage.

According to the report, China currently has 30 large wildlife parks. A large wildlife park's maintenance and operation require significant funding.

Mang said that competition between parks sometimes forces operators to cut corners, especially where the animals are involved. The keen competition that park operators face can lead to financial failure for some of them, and even worse conditions for the animals.

For example, when SARS hit China in 2003, visitor numbers to a wildlife park in Xiamen, Fujian Province, dropped by 98 percent. In order to stay afloat, the park cut expenses on animal feed by a third. Many of the park's starved to death, and tigers and lions turned on one another in a bid to survive.

Mang stressed the need to strengthen rules relating to the supervision and management of wildlife parks for the animals' sake. She called for animal welfare legislation, adding it would be practical now to insert animal welfare clauses into other relevant regulations before a special law is created.

To help legislators along, Mang and her group proposed the following after two years of investigation:

· Stop the excessive building of wildlife parks;
· Control animal breeding in wildlife parks;
· Centralize financial resources and work a system of distribution;
· Improve the management of wildlife parks and guarantee the welfare of animals;
· Legislate on animal welfare and impose a ban on the mistreatment of and cruelty to animals.

The concept of animal protection and welfare legislation is still virgin territory in China. "Few people have been punished for mistreating animals," Mang said. "Laws are therefore needed to encourage and ensure that people treat animals nicely."

(Shanghai Morning Post, translated by Li Jingrong for China.org.cn June 20, 2005)

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