Cheap Thrills, Poor Conditions Plague Indonesia's Zoos

A viral video of sun bears appearing to beg for food from zoo visitors has people calling for change at Indonesia’s zoos.

In the video, skinny sun bears stand on their back legs in a pit, arms outstretched as visitors toss in snacks. They gobble them up and wade into the murky water of the moat that rings their barren enclosure to get closer to the sources of the food.

Another video shows a sun bear defecating and eating his own feces, as much a sign of boredom as of hunger, according to Gabriella Fredriksson, a sun bear expert who runs the Sun Bear Center, in Borneo. “There seems to be a lot amiss when [with] the sun bears' behavior,” she said in an email.

The videos were filmed in mid-2016 at Bandung Zoo, in Indonesia, by the Indonesian zoo-monitoring group Scorpion. They went viral this January, inspiring petitions signed by several hundred thousand people calling for the zoo to be closed.

Animal welfare experts working in Indonesia say Bandung Zoo isn’t even close to the worst in the country.

At Surabaya Zoo, a dead giraffe was found with 40 pounds of plastic in his stomach, a lion got tangled in a cable and strangled himself to death, and a white tiger died after a tongue injury left him unable to eat. Elephants wear heavy chains around their feet preventing them from walking to their watering hole or to the single patch of grass in their enclosure. (Read about Indonesia’s so-called “death zoo.”)

Two years ago Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, which is in charge of regulating zoos, said that only four of the country’s 58 registered zoos were “decent and appropriate,” according to the Jakarta Globe.

Why do so many zoos in Indonesia appear to have such a low level of care?

According to people familiar with zoos there, it’s a combination of low entry fees, a lack of reinvestment in improvements, and a government oversight agency that has no real knowledge or understanding of animal welfare or of the concept of zoos other than as a source of entertainment. (Most respected zoos worldwide make conservation and education their primary mission.)

Indonesia’s zoos are “predominantly appalling and way below acceptable minimum standards,” said Ian Singleton, a former zookeeper, in an email. Singleton spent nearly a decade at one of the UK’s top zoos, the Jersey Zoo (now the Durrell Wildlife Park), in the British Channel Islands. He’s lived in Indonesia for nearly 25 years, working as an orangutan conservationist.

With a small number of exceptions, Singleton said zoos leave many animals without access to fresh clean water or shade on a daily basis, allow visitors to feed the animals snacks, and have little or no competent veterinary care.

Cheaper Than a Rickshaw Ride

“Most zoos are run by people who see them only as cash cows,” Singleton said. “They use the argument that they should be accessible to all levels of society, so they keep entrance fees very very low and spend only on essentials.”

It costs 6,000 to 10,000 Indonesian rupiahs, or 50 to 75 cents, for a ticket to most zoos. That’s cheaper than a ride on a rickshaw or nasi bungkus, a common street food dish of rice and other fillings wrapped in a banana leaf, Singleton said. “Every level of society can afford that. Prices need to increase, visitor numbers need to come down, and a portion of the profits needs to be regularly reinvested.”

Cheap tickets mean there’s often not enough money to train staff, keep the premises clean, or improve enclosures, which are often too small, made entirely of concrete or bare dirt, and have few or no “enrichment items,” like perches for birds, trees for monkeys, or pools big enough for otters to swim in.

But in Indonesia zoos are seen primarily as a form of entertainment, according to Gea. That leads to problems.

For example, many zoos allow independent vendors to sell snacks and cheap toys to kids, including plastic guns, which inevitably end up pointed at animals.

“I remember well seeing people in the old Medan Zoo buy these and then shoot at birds and animals with them for fun,” Singleton said, adding that visitors also throw peanuts and other food at the animals too.

The focus on entertainment has led to frequent breeding of popular animals like tigers, whose cubs attract more visitors. “There’s no thought at all for the long-term welfare, [including] placement and housing, of the animals produced,” according to Singleton.

On the weekends and on holidays, he said that some zoos set up stages for bands that play deafening music and bring in fairground rides. The added noise and commotion can be distressing to the animals, who can’t escape it, studies show.

Weak Oversight

Zoos in Indonesia have very little oversight. Ragunan Zoo is the only one that belongs to WAZA, an umbrella organization “committed to conservation and to excellence in zoo and aquarium management.”

Yet there’s evidence, according to Scorpion and other NGOs, that even Ragunan doesn’t come close to internationally accepted standards of care. For a long time keepers hobbled their elephants with chains, preventing almost any movement at all. Public pressure, brought in part by media reports, led the zoo to end the practice, but recent photos show the elephants are still chained, like dogs on a leash.

WAZA’s animal welfare guidelines available online are not species-specific, and there’s no mention of chains; guidelines say, however, that enclosures should provide “challenge and choice” for the animals and allow them some control over their own well-being “by choosing to move from place to place,” such as out of the sun, onto the grass, or toward their companions.

Elephants are highly intelligent, social animals that in the wild roam up to 30 miles a day. Isolating them from other elephants, confining them to small concrete pens, and preventing them from moving more than a few feet is cruel, experts say.

“It’s not an acceptable situation to keep adult elephants chained in a secure enclosure. It’s incredibly bad management,” said Dave Neale of Animals Asia, a Hong Kong-based nonprofit that campaigns to improve treatment of wild animals in zoos.

He says that for these zoos to be able to end the chaining, they need to work toward a “protected management system,” which is where the zookeepers are never in an enclosure at the same time as elephants. That will require investment in infrastructure and bigger enclosures, which costs money. He also recommends that elephants be integrated into social groups and provided complex environments, feeding regimes, and enrichment programs to stimulate them cognitively and physically.

WAZA president Susan Hunt said in an email that they have been working with Ragunan to improve elephant care. “WAZA, Wild Welfare [a WAZA partner], and other WAZA members have been providing ongoing advice and assistance to improve animal care expertise at that facility,” she wrote.

WAZA’s standards apply only to that one zoo in Indonesia. But all the zoos are under the purview of the Ministry of Environment and Forestry and are supposed to meet ethical and welfare requirements. But that’s not what happens in reality, Neale said. He thinks things need to change at the top.

“Having somebody at the ministerial level that really cared about animal welfare, would change things dramatically,” he said. Hunt said that WAZA has reached out to the ministry with their concerns about animal welfare at Indonesian zoos and has offered financial and training support.

The Minister of Environment and Forestry, Siti Nurbaya Bakar, did not respond to requests for comment. She did commission a report in January in response to petitions calling for help for the sun bears after the 2016 videos went viral. The report from the Indonesian Association of Aquariums and Zoos found that the bears have gained weight since the video was taken and that they are “generally in good condition.” But it says their enclosure needs more “enrichment” to allow them to express their natural behaviors. The group has been assisting with zoo management for the past year, according to the association's general secretary, Tony Sumampau.

Zoos in Indonesia tend to have little interest in going beyond the bare minimum necessary to keep animals alive, Neale said. “There needs to be a level of awareness raised about what animals need,” he said. “It’s a process that’s just begun here.”

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