Issues involve “no-kill” philosophy of zoo management
JAKARTA, Indonesia––Singky Soewadji, of Surabaya, Indonesia, was until August 22, 2016 just another middle-aged online animal advocate, with a wife named Lucky Anie Paat, an interest in breeding and exhibiting Rottweilers, and at least a seven-year history of concern about conditions at the soon-to-be-100-year-old Surabaya Zoo, expressed to his 3,700-odd Facebook friends.
Then, a week from celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the founding of the zoo on August 31, 2016, the Indonesian Zoo Animals Association and Taman Safari zoo owner Tony Sumampau decided to make an example of Singky Soewadji for amplifying concerns shared around the world about years-old transactions involving Sumampou and the Surabaya Zoo.
Savior or scoundrel?
Sumampau, who doubles as secretary-general of the Indonesian Zoo Animals Association, was widely portrayed by media in 2010-2013 as the potential savior of the Surabaya Zoo. He introduced several long overdue improvements, including reducing conspicuous overcrowding.
But positive impressions of Sumampau are not universally shared. The Taman Safari zoos and amusement parks have also come under activist criticism, though not nearly so often nor as intensely as the Surabaya Zoo.
420 animals transferred
The temporary transfer of 420 animals from the Surabaya Zoo to six other Indonesian zoos during Sumampau’s tenure as Surabaya Zoo interim director has been especially controversial.
The transfer of animals, including to Taman Safari, appears to have involved the rarest and most valuable 10% of the total Surabaya Zoo collection at the time. The animals were transferred according to Sumampau, to protect their health while new housing for them was built.
Many, perhaps most, were reportedly returned to the Surabaya Zoo.
Activist kept controversy alive
But critics, including the Surabaya Zoo management preceding and following Sumampau’s tenure as director, contend that Sumampau in effect looted the zoo of healthy animals, returning older and unhealthy specimens.
Singky Soewadji has allegedly helped to keep the controversy inflamed and alive, with consequences reported by the online news and entertainment portal Coconuts Jakarta on August 23, 2016.
Coconuts & a twist of lime
Coconuts Media, founded in Bangkok 2011 by veteran U.S. journalist Byron Perry, joined by several other Americans with U.S. online news experience, now operates news and entertainment portals in eight Southeast Asian cities, including Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Bali, and Yangon.
All eight cities have lively, competitive news media. But attempted censorship by well-placed people invoking laws passed in the name of maintaining national security is a fact of life for media operating anywhere in Southeast Asia. Exposing alleged corruption tends to be especially sensitive.
For Coconuts Jakarta, the arrest of Singky Soewadji fit a pattern.
Allegedly defamed government institution
“Indonesia’s much criticized information technology law has once again been used by state officials,” Coconuts Jakarta said, “to arrest somebody for criticizing a government institution for possible corruption online. This time, the institution in question is Surabaya’s infamous zoo, which has been beset by constant scandals involving mismanagement and horrific animal mistreatment, leading it to be dubbed the ‘Zoo of Death’ by some,” including the Jakarta Post, Coconuts Jakarta’s biggest, oldest, and best-connected media rival.
“Animal rights activist Singky Soewadji was arrested by police for allegedly defaming the zoo by questioning the irregularities” in the 420-animal transaction, Coconuts Jakarta said.
Surabaya State Attorney Didik Farkhan confirmed the arrest to Coconuts Jakarta.
The law invoked, Coconuts Jakarta explained, “criminalizes any online statements that could be considered slanderous or defamatory. Singky Soewadji was reported to the police by Indonesia Zoo Association chair Rahmat Shah and zoo association secretary Tony Sumampau.”
“I am fighting for the truth”
Said Singky Soewadji, “I am fighting for the truth. In contrast, if I was arrested for corruption, I would be embarrassed. It is the removal of the 420 animals that is suspect.”
Finished Coconuts Jakarta, “Singky Soewadji said that the removal of the animals from the zoo was filled with irregularities and involved many state officials. He said there was no way that so many animals could have been properly removed from the zoo in such a short time.”
What actually happened at the Surabaya Zoo is unclear, not least because disputes over animal deaths, questionable transactions, and allegations of staff involvement in illegal animal trafficking go back at least to 1998, when frequent thefts of rare Bali starlings from a captive breeding program began coming to public notice. The zoo has about 175 Bali starlings in a 13-cage breeding compound at any given time.
The Indonesian Zoo Animals Association, represented by Sumampau, was first appointed by the Surabaya government to try to fix the problems at the Surabaya Zoo in 2010. Sumampau arrived after three years of skirmishing between former zoo chief executives Stany Soebakir and his successor, Basuki Reksi Wibowo, who “uncovered the sale of rare animals, including lions and white tigers, during the leadership of Stany Soebakir, who denied the allegation,” and claimed he was still the rightful zoo chief, reported Indra Harsaputra of the Jakarta Post.
“All Surabaya Zoo animals could be dead”
Sumampau warned at the time, reported Associated Press writer Niniek Karmini, that “All of the animals at the Surabaya Zoo, Indonesia’s largest, many of them critically endangered, could be dead within five years unless strong action is taken to change the culture of neglect and corruption that permeates the facility. He said hundreds of animals die every year at the zoo,” which then exhibited an estimated 4,200 animals in total, on just 37 acres, “and others suffer from hunger, stress and overcrowding.
“Many employees have been caught stealing meat intended for the animals and sometimes, in the case of rare species, stealing the animals themselves,” wrote Niniek Karmini.
The city of Surabaya in July 2013 reclaimed administration of the Surabaya Zoo from the Indonesian Zoo Animals Association.
Mayor accused Sumampou
Six months later, in January 2014, Surabaya mayor Tri Rismaharini “filed a report with the Corruption Eradication Commission accusing the former management of the Surabaya Zoo of possible graft and gross mismanagement resulting in the deaths of several exotic animals,” reported Margareth S. Aritonang of the Jakarta Post.
Tri Rismaharini “alleged that there were groups within the management that had traded several animals in return for financial gain, which had sparked internal conflict, said that signs of graft could be found in cases of missing endangered species, and said that the new management had recorded that around 420 animals were missing,” Margareth S. Aritonang wrote. “According to Tri Rismaharini, Toni Sumampou’s team had demanded the city administration hand over animals in return for all facilities built under his tenure.”
The Surabaya Zoo collection had by then thinned to about 3,450 animals, partly because of the animals who had been transferred, partly through deaths.
The overall Surabaya Zoo animal death rate of about 15 to 25 animals per month was not remarkable for the size of the collection, but some of the deaths were intensely controversial.
At least some of the deaths, including that of a giraffe named Kliwon in 2012, have occurred as result of Surabaya Zoo animals ingesting plastic waste thrown about by zoo visitors. Kliwon had ingested as much as 40 pounds of plastic over the years, wrote Indra Harsaputra of the Jakarta Post.
New York Times investigation
New York Times correspondent Keith Bradsher tried to sort out what was what at the Surabaya Zoo in March 2014, after the slow death of a white tiger from pneumonia and the accidental hanging of an 18-month-old lion named Michael whose “neck became entangled in the cable that opened and closed the door of its cage,” Bradsher recounted.
“Other than zoos in war zones,” the Surabaya Zoo “is probably the worst case of a zoo and dying animals anywhere in the world in recent years,” charged Sybelle Foxcroft of the Australian organization Conservation & Environmental Education 4 Life.
Sumampau, explained Bradsher, “has rallied international zoo and environmental groups and the Indonesian government behind his contention that mismanagement and inadequate veterinary care are to blame. On the other side of the debate,” Tri Rismaharini and longtime managers who had been displaced by Tony Sumampau “criticize Sumampau for shuffling animals back and forth between the municipal zoo and his family’s safari parks while he was in charge. They say he gave the healthiest animals to his parks while saddling the zoo with the sick and dying. Sumampau said he needed to move animals back and forth to improve genetic diversity and relieve overcrowding.”
Money & land
The Taman Safari admission price is more than ten times the Surabaya Zoo admission price. To some observers this signifies that the Surabaya Zoo might be unwelcome competition for Taman Safari; to others, that it is no competition at all, appealing to an entirely different and much less affluent clientele.
“The Surabaya Zoo grounds are an oasis,” noted Bradsher, “featuring some of the oldest and stateliest tropical trees left in crowded East Java. But it sits on downtown land now worth as much as $600 million in a bustling metropolis where Dutch colonial homes are rapidly giving way to high-rises and shopping malls.
Tri Rismaharini, the mayor, said in an interview that she was officially notified in 2011 of plans to bulldoze part of the zoo to make room for a luxury hotel and restaurant, which would pay fees that would subsidize the rest of the zoo. She declined to say who notified her. Other municipal officials have said that it was the Forest Ministry in Jakarta, but the ministry denied this.
“Sumampau acknowledged having plans drafted for a restaurant and an access road––plans he said he paid for himself––but he denied that a hotel was included,” wrote Bradsher.
But while allegations of corruption and schemes to profit by developing public green space are ubiquitous in Indonesia, the flashpoint issue at the Surabaya Zoo appears to be differences of philosophy animal advocates.
“Unlike many zoo veterinarians, Liang Kaspe, the longtime senior veterinarian at the Surabaya Zoo, disapproves of contraceptives for animals, Bradsher found, “contending that they are harmful to the animals’ hormonal balance and may raise their risk of cancer.”
Instead of practicing contraception as most veterinarians at accredited zoos do now, Liang Kaspe tried to control the zoo population through gender separation, according to Bradsher––or perhaps did not practice effective population control at all, inasmuch as the Surabaya Zoo has seldom lacked baby animals for display.
“In general,” observed Bradsher, Liang Kaspe “allows much more crowding of animal pens than most zoos do.”
Sumampau demoted Liang Kaspe to running a pet hospital, Bradsher found, but Tri Rismaharini restored her to her former position.
“Liang also disapproves of euthanasia,” Bradsher wrote, “citing a moral reluctance to take life.”
This led to the high-profile pneumonia death of the elderly white tiger Chandrika in 2012, and to other slow deaths furiously publicized by activists via social media.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and other animal advocacy organizations in 2012 collected more than 80,000 signatures on petitions demanding that the zoo be closed. Despite the value of the Surabaya Zoo site to developers, however, the zoo appears to be turning 100 with little likelihood of being closed at any time soon.