Jo’burg Zoo runs a wild business

Trunk call: Zoo department manager Piet Malepa says monetary values are placed on zoo animals for the City of Johanesburg’s books, for insurance purposes and for fair exchanges and deals. (Anthony Schultz)

Trunk call: Zoo department manager Piet Malepa says monetary values are placed on zoo animals for the City of Johanesburg’s books, for insurance purposes and for fair exchanges and deals. (Anthony Schultz)

If you examine the City of Johannesburg’s financial statements, you will find a long-term asset you may not have expected — zoo animals.

Some years back, the zoo’s welfare and management department was tasked with providing estimated values for all the animals in the zoo — comprising 330 species and 2 769 animals.

The animals at the Johannesburg Zoo are valued at nearly R26-million, according to the metropolitan municipality’s integrated annual report for the 2015-2016 financial year.

Piet Malepa, the zoo’s department manager, has been in this post for 12 years and recalls that, when the monetary values were first required, it was a big job. Even now, putting a value on an animal is not a simple exercise, Malepa said.

“To me as an animal person, monetary value in terms of an animal is not the most important aspect in my mind. For me, it is about how this animal can be healthy and live and reproduce. And how do we maintain the population of this animal,” Malepa said.

The values the zoo records are called “zoo-based values”. According to the city’s annual report, market-determined values are not available for certain animals because they are not commodities. The restrictions on trade in exotic animals also preclude the determination of a fair value.

Malepa said the zoo arrives at its value estimates by using figures from previous auctions, information from other zoos and whatever price an animal was traded for by the Johannesburg Zoo or any other zoo.

The city’s valuation of zoo animals gets stranger still. The city’s financial statements also note R3.1-million accumulated depreciation and accumulated impairment on the zoo animals.

Malepa said he and other “animal people” put value on a species and not an individual.

“To us an old lion and a young lion is a lion … but in terms of the zoo-based valuation, the finance people say the older the animal gets the more the value goes down. We go with them on that one.”

He noted that, in reality, it may be that the older the zoo animals become the more manageable they are. And a zoo-born hippo would be more manageable than a wild one and so would be more desirable for a zoo.

Walking through the hallways of the zoo’s offices, Malepa stops to pick up an inventory list that shows the estimated values of selected animals according to the zoo-based methodology.

A pygmy hippopotamus is valued at R80 000, a Siberian tigress at R70 000 and a white lion is worth R100 000.

Malepa said the zoo-based value ranks the Lord Derby eland as the most valuable animal in the zoo that can be legally bought and sold. But Malepa estimates the gorilla as being the most valuable animal at the Johannesburg Zoo. The primate cannot be legally bought and sold and is probably worth R3-million on the black market.

At the other end of the spectrum, the yellow anaconda is not very highly valued. For now, two yellow anacondas are on display at the zoo — a large steamy glass enclosure half-filled with water houses the large serpents. “There are too many of them in South Africa. They give you a lot of babies and you find you don’t want those babies. So if you breed them, what are you going to do? It is just a display animal.”

The zoo works in line with a collection plan, a strategic document that guides it in terms of how many animals can be kept in a particular enclosure, taking into consideration available space and behaviour. Curators of various sections of the zoo generally consolidate the surplus animal list every six months or so.

Surplus animals can be exchanged with or sold to other zoos or other parties who have the relevant permits.

Sales are about reducing the number of surplus animals and not about revenue, Malepa said. An exchange is preferred. Animals are also loaned out or in — usually on a one-year lease, which also establishes which zoo will own the offspring born during the loan period.

Very few zoos will tell you how much their animals are worth, said Malepa. He noted that in Europe and other developed regions monetary value is not attached to zoo animals because they are mostly kept for research and other purposes related to conservation.

“But when you come to Africa, then we start with attaching monetary value to animals,” he laughed.

The values have proved important to the Johannesburg Zoo not just for sales but also for when an exchange takes place.

“You need to know if you are exchanging a leopard for a squirrel,” Malepa joked.

Johannesburg Zoo exchanges animals with other zoos and reserves that have the required facilities.

“[The] last exchange I did with Bloemfontein zoo was the hippo. They had a male that was related to the female,” said Malepa. “I had a male that was related to the female. What I do is I give them a male, they give me a male. It’s a fair exchange.”

All pertinent information about each zoo animal is recorded on the Zoological Information Management System (Zims), a global database.

“All the time, there is birth, there is death, there is acquisition and disposition — all those things — and we have linked them to our Zims … it is there on the system and everyone who has the system is able to see. People make deals according to the information there,” Malepa said.

Importantly, the values demonstrate the value of conservation. “If you can’t show the value, you can’t motivate for funding,” Malepa said.

Another reason the zoo puts a value on its animals is for insurance purposes.

The Johannesburg Zoo is currently claiming for a bird valued at R30 000.

“There’s a door that we realised was very hard to close in that enclosure. There was also no double gate system,” said Malepa. The bird had escaped. “It could be that a valuable animal is stolen. It hasn’t happened here but it can happen.”

When transporting an animal, it is also the zoo’s liability while it is in the zoo’s truck.

But insurance won’t cover everything. Last year a Siberian tigress at the zoo gave birth to cubs for the first time, but she ate them. The cubs were not yet loaded on the system and so could not be claimed for, Malepa said. When stressed, a female cat can eat her cubs.

It’s not cheap to run a zoo. The zoo is subsidised by the municipality but is also mandated to generate its own income. Food for the animals costs R665 000 a month, or R8-million a year.

Predators are fed meat every second day. The crocodiles are not fed at all when it’s cold — it could kill them. The biggest order is grass. Drought and other factors, which limit the availability of food, directly affect the zoo’s costs.

In a day the zoo animals can consume up to 15 bales of teff and 12 bales of lucerne.

Since the opening of the aquarium, fish food has also proved expensive — as are the water and electricity costs associated with keeping the tanks in optimal running order.

Malepa said he knows the zoo has to raise some of its funds, but revenues are not the primary objective.

“You will be amazed at the amount of education we do as the zoo,” said Malepa, noting R2-million a year is budgeted for marketing and education. As much is budgeted for animal acquisition.

“We also provide opportunities for research. As I’m speaking there are Wits students, about 80 of them, who are doing their research in the zoo.”

Conservation programmes are also core to what the zoo does. Its wattled crane recovery programme, for example, which involves the rescue of abandoned eggs in the wild, means the zoo now has 80% of the “insurance population” to reintroduce into the wild should the cranes be wiped out. 

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn

Lisa Steyn is a business reporter at the Mail & Guardian. She holds a master's degree in journalism and media studies from Wits University. Her areas of interest range from energy and mining to financial services and telecommunication. When she is not poring over annual reports, Lisa can usually be found pottering about the kitchen. Read more from Lisa Steyn

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