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Chris goes to the zoo (again)

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On our travels through Asia, we have come across all manner of animal-themed tourist attractions. Animals as entertainment is big business here and nowhere more so than in Chiang Mai Province in northern Thailand. In the Mae Sa Valley a short distance from the city of Chiang Mai, you can watch a man French-kissing a king cobra, laugh at monkeys riding bicycles and have a photo taken of your head in the mouth of a live crocodile. As if this weren't enough, a few miles down the road lies Tiger Kingdom, which unashamedly bills itself as the only place in the world where you can enter a cage with a full-grown tiger and stroke its whiskers. It's tempting to shake one's head disapprovingly at the Thais for laying on such dubious forms of entertainment. Though they are guilty of insufficient regulation of this kind of attraction and pandering to the market for cheap thrills at animals' expense, the real culprits here are the paying punters. For instance, the staff at Tiger Kingdom has to keep poking and prodding the tigers to stop them from falling asleep. Their excuse for this shameful practice is that if the tigers were asleep, the tourists would not pay to enter the cage. To which I say: isn't it time to educate your visitors instead?

Closer to Chiang Mai itself are two wildlife attractions of a more traditional nature; a zoo and a night safari. Now I like a good zoo (the emphasis on good), and the UK is blessed with some very good zoos which do great work in conversation and education. For this reason I don't subscribe to the notion that zoos belong in the dustbin of history - they should be given a chance to move with the times and respond to the ever-changing demands of the discerning zoo visitor. I also enjoy visiting other countries' zoos, because I think you can learn something about their society from the way they exhibit and care for captive animals, and from observing the natives on family outings to their local zoo.

In Chiang Mai I passed on the Night Safari (because it had been built inside a National Park) and caught a tuk-tuk to the Chiang Mai Zoo and Aquarium, Thailand's largest zoo. It's a very picturesque place, set on a forested hillside with an abundance of tropical flowering plants. It's also vast, so vat that the Thais have built roads between the enclosures, as if to prove the point that there's nowhere in the country that can't be reached on a moped. Modern Thailand again shows its face in the form of innumerable retail outlets in the zoo grounds; even a small supermarket and a shoe shop.

In the zoo's many souvenir kiosks, panda toys are the hot sellers, for Chiang Mai is one of the only zoos in South East Asia to house giant pandas. In 2009, their pair of pandas produced a baby, though not without the help of a small army of veterinary specialists. The male showed no interest in mating with the female by natural means, so artificial insemination was used (twice). I know this because it was all explained in great detail on a wall of information boards in the panda house, with the help of some very graphic photos showing probes being inserted in various panda orifices. The panda enclosure faces this wall, so the poor animals are confronted with poster-size images of their own genitalia all day long. It must be the panda equivalent of waking up after a night on the lash, looking in the mirror and thinking "Oh God, is that really me?"

Giant panda at Chiang Mai Zoo

Giant panda at Chiang Mai Zoo

If the panda exhibit was one highlight, another was the huge walk-through aviary, which must have been created by simply stretching a net over an area of mature forest and filling it full of colourful tropical birds. Elsewhere, the exhibits were disappointingly average. Though the reptiles can be exhibited in outdoor enclosures rather than the poky heated buildings we're used to in European zoos, choosing to put all your crocodiles in concrete pits isn't the greatest way to show them off. Furthermore, there were no outstanding exhibits and no local rarities - just the usual crowd-pleasers such as lions, penguins and elephants.

Tropical bird aviary at Chiang Mai Zoo

Tropical bird aviary at Chiang Mai Zoo

The visitors to Far Eastern zoos often betray the different attitude to wild animals between this part of the world and, say, Europe or North America. Here, animals in zoos are firmly for the visitors' entertainment. In Western Europe zoos take great pains to instruct visitors not to feed the animals, but in Chiang Mai it was positively encouraged. You could feed pretty much anything, including the big cats, the latter by means of a piece of raw meat on the end of a pole which you could insert through the wire mesh of their cage. How exactly does this foster respectful stewardship and sensitivity towards wildlife? To be fair to the Thais, they were generally pretty well behaved, especially when I think back to some of the things I saw in Beijing Zoo.

The aquarium in the middle of the zoo has the distinction of having South East Asia's longest underwater tunnels. (It's important for all public aquaria to have a 'deepest', 'longest', 'biggest' or 'world's only' to trumpet.) The more impressive of the two runs through a freshwater tank which is home to some absolute monsters - giant Mekong catfish, freshwater stingrays and pirarucu (the largest fish in the Amazon). The information signs in the aquarium reflected an unusual take on visitor interpretation, offering advice on which species could be kept in home aquaria.

If Chiang Mai tried to impress with its role-call of big-hitting species, the other zoo I visited on this trip was a complete contrast. True, it held tigers, wolves, bears and panthers, but this was still a zoo with a difference. The Himalayan Mountain Zoo in Darjeeling specialises in Himalayan fauna, so you won't find giraffes, meerkats or flamingos here. It's a small establishment but holds the distinction of being the most successful zoo globally at breeding endangered snow leopards and red pandas.

Red panda at Darjeeling Zoo

Red panda at Darjeeling Zoo

I arrived late one afternoon after a brisk walk along the ridge out of town. Fortunately, the zoo occupies a small site and can be explored thoroughly in just an hour or two. The setting, like Chiang Mai's zoo, is delightful: mature forest, one of the few such areas remaining in this part of West Bengal. And unlike the rest of India, the zoo grounds are clean, orderly and quiet. I spent a good half hour watching the red pandas devouring their evening meal of bamboo shoots, and a similar amount of time marvelling at the extensive collection of pheasants (unfortunately kept behind dirty Perspex screens, so I could not photograph their brilliant colours).

Himalayan wolf at Darjeeling Zoo

Himalayan wolf at Darjeeling Zoo

At the blue sheep enclosure I noticed three Indian boys nearby. Eventually their curiosity got the better of them and they approached me (this happens a lot in India). "Where are you from?" one of them asked. "England," I replied, "Manchester." Their eyes suddenly widened, for mention of this city provokes the same response across the whole of Asia. "Manchester United!" they chorused in unison. I then had to explain that few people in Manchester actually support United, and I was not one of them. This they found hard to believe, perhaps because 99% of Man U fans live in Asia and they can't imagine why I would want to follow any other team. They were not visiting the zoo, but were on the way to the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute which lies within the zoo grounds. They had two weeks off school to learn basic mountaineering schools at this famous training centre established by Tenzing Norgay the year after he summitted Everest on the 1953 British expedition. "You like my country?" asked one of the boys as we parted ways. "I like your zoo!" I replied evasively.

Posted by Chris Parsons 07:02 Archived in Thailand Tagged india thailand zoo panda darjeeling

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