Japanese zoo proves hit with walk on wild side

Surrounded by a crowd of admirers, 24-year-old Jack has no idea how close his home came to being shut down a decade ago as he dangles from a rope, scratching his shaggy red fur.

The orangutan plays happily at a zoo in northern Japan that was saved from the brink of closure and redesigned as a playground for animals that is now the country’s top wildlife attraction.

Dozens of visitors crowd around the cage of Jack, his 13-year-old mate Rian and their infant Momo as they clamber up a 17m pole designed to recreate the feel of a tree in the wild.

Feeding time is one of most popular attractions at Asahiyama Zoo on the northern island of Hokkaido which now attracts visitors from around the country and even neighbouring South Korea and Taiwan.

“Animals here are so lively, so different from those in other zoos,” 17-year-old student Erika Sakae, on a school trip from Osaka, shouts excitedly as she watches some of Asia’s largest tree-dwelling apes at play.

With his bold orange colouring and distinctive cheek pads, Jack and the other orangutans shin up the pole and dangle on a loose rope stretched horizontally across into another cage to be fed.

The crowd holds its collective breath as the primates dangle in the air, letting out occasional cries of “Ahh” and “Watch out!”.

But 30-year-old zoo keeper Nobuhiro Takahashi, loudspeaker in one hand and biscuits in the other for his primate friends, reassures the nervous onlookers.

“Orangutans are animals who live most of their lives on top of trees. If they drop from a tree, that means death to them. So please don’t worry this baby orangutan might fall from the rope.”

Takahashi educates visitors on wild orangutans’ way of life in the wild and encourages the trio to demonstrate their ability to use tools to retrieve biscuits from out of their grasp as they would use branches to forage for food.

Orangutans are critically endangered, he says, making it even more critical to create an environment in which they can thrive.

“In 1996 the number stood at a range of 16 000 and 30 000.
Now, they only [number] 12 000 in the world. I hope you are enjoying being in front of such a precious animal today,” Takahashi says.

The orangutans are not the only animals at the zoo with habitats designed to recreate conditions in the wild.

In the aquarium seals swim upwards through a huge vertical cylinder-like tunnel that leads to a larger water tank, peering out through their whiskers at the audience.

“This is to show seals’ outstanding swimming ability, as opposed to their ability to walk on the ground,” says Tetsuo Yamazaki, spokesperson for the zoo.

Visitors can also peer up at panthers dozing in their cages, see polar bears swimming in a big water tank and penguins zooming through water tunnels.

“Because it is natural for panthers to sleep in daytime—which is usually boring to see, keepers thought of a way to inspire interest among visitors,” says Yamazaki.

Ten years ago, the zoo was facing possible closure because of plunging visitor numbers.

The number of annual visitors stayed roughly at 500 000 in the first two decades after it opened in 1967, but after Japan’s so-called “bubble economy” burst in the early 1990s the figure began to slide.

In 1994, it had just over 260 000 visitors a year, losing 374-million yen ($3,3-million) of public money and prompting the local authorities to consider shutting it down for good.

“When I joined the zoo nine years ago, there still weren’t many people here. On some days when weather was really bad, we would see literally nobody. Not a visitor,” recalls Takahashi.

Alarmed at the situation, a group of 10 or so animal keepers racked their brains to try to find a way to revive the zoo under the concept of “showing people the very best of animals”.

“We thought we could share this sense of excitement we receive everyday from animals with our customers,” says Yamazaki.

They decided to create an environment fit for each animal, and to allow visitors to catch a glimpse of the wild side of each creature.

With local government support, the zoo began to transform its facilities in the late 1990s, setting the scene for the rebound in visitor numbers.

From the difficult days of 1990s, the number of visitors leapt six-fold to 1,45-million in 2004, reducing the annual deficit to 5,4-million yen ($473 000).

This year, 1,32-million people had already visited Japan’s northernmost zoo as of mid-September and the government hopes to attract more foreign visitors through its “Yokoso Japan” (Welcome to Japan) campaign to boost tourism.

The director of the zoo, Masao Kosuge, a 57-year-old veterinarian, says his ultimate objective is “to serve to animals, not people”.

“My ideal is that people find this place fun only as a result of our efforts of conveying the beauty and strength of animals,” says Kosuge, who worked as a keeper for more than three decades before becoming the director 10 years ago.

“Our current luck of seeing many visitors will not last unless we do our utmost” to encourage people to love animals, he adds. - AFP