Missing Mali

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

In my youth I was a regular visitor at the Manila Zoo. There were a lot of animals at the time: lions, tigers, bears, giraffes, crocodiles, hippopotamuses, chimpanzees and mandrills, snakes, a lot of birds, and of course elephants.

Yes, plural – all the big animals of the same species came in pairs at the least, including the hippo. I remember only one that arrived alone – an adult polar bear, which of course didn’t last long in the tropical heat. Lacking a pen with Arctic temperature in the zoo, the poor beast was placed on a block of ice.

Today the geniuses who thought of bringing that bear to the Philippines would have been charged with animal cruelty.

The concept of zoos in fact has come under fire from animal rights activists, like the use of animals in circuses.

It’s unlikely that the animals at the Manila Zoo enjoyed their confined environment, even if they were always assured of food, water and a modicum of hygiene.

For entertainment value, a big hit at the zoo at the time were the chimps. They would jump and swing from the rocks and branches, and catch food tossed by humans. They watched visitors intently, waiting for humans to turn their backs on the pen for photos. Then they would slap the ground and jump up and down, reach under their butts and hurl their poop at the unsuspecting humans. They had terrific aim, and they would ground-slap and pant-hoot loudly with what I could only surmise was simian glee when they hit their target. I remembered those hooting, ground-slapping chimps when I watched the “Planet of the Apes” series.

Among the other favorites were the animals that could be fed by visitors, despite signs prohibiting feeding: the giraffes and the elephants. Who can say if the beasts enjoyed the interaction with humans? I thought the elephants seemed listless, pacing in their small pens.

Feeding with a plastic straw by a visitor killed the last giraffe in the zoo in 2002. As for the elephants, their number dwindled to just one over three decades ago, and the zoo lost her last Tuesday.

Mali the elephant, dead at over 40 years old reportedly of congestive heart failure and cancer, became the center of animal rights activism in the Philippines. I might have tossed her peanuts when she was a playful calf.

Described as the world’s saddest elephant, she was the main attraction when the zoo reopened in November last year after undergoing renovation. The city government consistently refused to allow her release to an elephant sanctuary in Thailand, arguing that having spent nearly her entire life in captivity, Mali would not be able to fend for herself and survive in the wild.

On the other hand, if she had been released into a controlled environment for senior elephants, wouldn’t she have fared better?

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Educating humans about wildlife is a good idea. The concept underpins the maintenance of zoos, whose visitors include schoolchildren. What needs tweaking is the means, which should justify the end. The concept of keeping wildlife in captivity would have to shift, from human voyeurism and entertainment to conservation. This is the concept behind the Philippine Eagle Center in Davao.

The global trend is to provide tours that allow humans to observe wildlife in their natural habitat.

Some countries with natural wildlife habitats have been doing this for a long time. I’ve been to a safari in South Africa, and observed elephant calves destroying small trees in their path as they rolled around while playing. The giraffes tried to conceal themselves in clumps of tall trees. A hyena lay hidden in ambush before chasing and catching an antelope. There were zebras and more antelopes. In a pond I spotted the head of a hippo peeking out. In the evening I had a barbecue dinner in a clearing fenced off with bamboo and torches to keep out the elephants, whose cries echoed in the night. The atmosphere was primeval.

I rode around in an open-top jeep with a guide clutching a shotgun, just in case, although as he pointed out, the big predators generally avoided noisy vehicles, and even snakes, unless trapped, avoided humans.

At the safari park lodge there was a huge pen holding a rhinoceros. It wasn’t there for show, but because it was treated for an injury and was being allowed to heal sufficiently before being released back into the wild. Even ailing, the rhino clearly didn’t like human company.

Obviously, an African safari is not accessible for everyone, and not all countries have the vast wildlife expanses of the African continent. As a compromise, some countries have developed sprawling immersion zoos outside urban areas, where wildlife that won’t kill each other are allowed to roam freely in an environment as similar as possible to their natural habitat. Visitors tour such places in vehicles with all windows rolled up.

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Some wildlife conservation parks also allow petting (and selfie) moments with some of the animals that are brought out to a visitors’ area. There are places like this in China for the adorable pandas (shy and stinky, but absolutely cute), in Australia for kangaroos and baby koalas, in Africa for ostriches, and in Louisiana for baby crocodiles. In Florida, there are petting pools for certain aquatic creatures.

We have a set-up like this in Bohol for the tarsier.

In Japan, over a thousand deer that roam freely are among the biggest attractions in a park in the lovely city of Nara. They bow to you when you feed them.

Mali, a gift from Sri Lanka to the first president Ferdinand Marcos, never got to roam freely. Her death leaves the zoo with even fewer attractions: the hippo, bears and poop-tossing chimps are gone.

Perhaps Mali’s passing can lead to a rethinking of how Filipinos can interact with wildlife in a safe environment.

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