MELAKA (Bernama) – The Harimau Malaya, or Malayan tiger, has been a national icon for over half a Century. The Coat of Arms of Malaysia feature two Malayan tigers for supporters. The name of the national football team is Harimau Malaya while the national hockey team is called the Speedy Tigers.
Indeed, in theory, Malaysians hold the Malayan tiger high. However, when it comes to the protection and conservation of the species, how well do they hold up?
Sadly, there might be as few as only 250 Malayan tigers left in Peninsular Malaysia, according to WWF-Malaysia (World Wide Fund for Nature). This is in contrast to 500 in 1990 and around 5,000 in 1950.
The drastic dwindling of population of Malayan tigers is due to poaching, and the loss of habitat as a result of forests being cleared to build roads and other development projects.
The CEO of Zoo Melaka and Night Safari, R Raja Segran noted this was the greatest challenge faced by every zoo – to translate visitor enthusiasm into love for the animals and subsequently the passion to protect them from threats and extinction.
Zoos are not animal exhibits, he emphasised. Instead, it plays the vital role of helming wildlife conservation efforts in the country.
“Malaysians love the Malayan tiger. In fact, it is the first animal they look for when visiting zoos in the country.
“The question is, how can we help them translate this love into action for the conservation of the species as well as of other wildlife?” he said.
Educating the visitors
To ensure that the zoo is able to carry out its role, the first thing that needs to be done is to educate visitors about the wildlife at the zoo.
Educating the younger visitors is especially important, as a fun and interactive experience at the zoo leaves an indelible mark on their minds, in addition to developing their passion and interest in wildlife conservation.
“I stress the need to keep a smiley and friendly attitude towards visitors, as it will help them warm up to the staff and encourage them to ask questions about the zoo and its animals. This can result in very educational visits,” said Raja Segran.
Another important step in educating visitors was to allow them to interact with the animals, he said.
Raja Segran believed that this was what distinguished zoos that act as a conservation centre for the protection of wildlife species from those that function merely as animal exhibits.
“Don’t let visitors go to an animal enclosure just to read the information board and then walk away. We need to use the opportunity to inculcate their love for wildlife and allow them to feed the animals or listen to the zookeeper’s experience caring for the animal.
“At our zoo, we allow visitors the experience of feeding elephants and giraffes as well as to interact with the animals. The zookeepers also provide information on the Malayan tiger during feeding time at the zoo.
“In addition, we also have a petting zoo for children where they can feed, play and hold small animals like rabbit. It helps nurture a love for animals from a young age,” he said.
More than a zookeeper
To realise the goal, Raja Segran believed that a zookeeper needed to do more than just feed the animals and clean enclosures.
Zookeepers should also be good storytellers and instill interest among visitors in the animals at the zoo, something that he has been trying to do at the Melaka Zoo and Night Safari.
It is certainly not a nine-to-five job. Instead, it is a profession only to be undertaken by those who possess deep passion and interest in wildlife conservation.
“That is the kind of mindset that our zookeepers need, and we are lucky to have ones as such. They love the animals and understand each animal’s characteristics and personality. However, they didn’t have a platform to share their passion with others.
“So we gave them a microphone and let them talk to the visitors as they feed the animals. They love doing that and the visitors also enjoy listening to their stories about the animals,” he said.
At the moment, the zoo has 25 zookeepers who are experts on the animals they are in charge of. The rest of the staff number around 80.
“The animals are actually our real employers. What is important to us is to inculcate the love for animals among the staff, whether those working in offices or enclosures. “We equip our staff with adequate knowledge of the animals. The age where a staff member does his work without knowing anything about the animal is over,” he said.
The zoo is ours
Raja Segran said a misperception that visitors often had was that the zoo they visited belonged to a private or government entity.
He believed that they should not feel that way, and should instead see the zoo as their own. It should be regarded as a recreational and educational centre for the community.
“It is important for a zoo to continue expanding, so community support is vital. The community needs to band together to contribute to their local zoos. In fact, in many zoos abroad, the community often volunteer their help.
“We need to have a sense of ownership towards the zoos within our community and continue to support it to ensure its maintenance and growth,” said Raja Segran.