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Friday, Dec. 31, 2004

Zoos grope to captivate visitors

'70s panda mania distant memory; crowds seek new thrills

Staff writer

Gone are the days when a new panda or elephant guaranteed a boost in zoo visitors.

News photo
An information panel outside the hippopotamus cage at the Ueno Zoological Gardens in Taito Ward, Tokyo, also carries a corporate advertisement.

Zoos pale against the wider variety of entertainment now available, and there are fewer children due to a steadily declining birthrate.

"People are no longer satisfied with seeing a rare animal in a zoo, as they can see it on television," said Kenichi Kitamura, managing director of the Japanese Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Since 2001, six private zoos nationwide have closed their gates mainly because people simply stopped coming, Kitamura said. Zoos operated by local governments are struggling to survive because municipalities, hit by tax revenue drops, are trying to cut back on expenses.

Japan's oldest zoo, Ueno Zoological Gardens in Taito Ward, Tokyo, is no exception.

Director Teruyuki Komiya said the zoo, operated by the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, doesn't have enough money to maintain and repair its facilities.

In September, the zoo put up sponsored signs explaining the habitats and characteristics of animals. This earned the zoo 11 million yen, which will be used to update signs, zoo officials said.

"Although we requested a budget for new signs, the metro government was unable to provide it" due to fiscal constraints, Komiya said. "As we could not wait, brainstorming by staff led to the idea of the advertisements."

The metro government had been reluctant to allow corporate sponsorship in a public facility, calling it "unsuitable." But in line with metro efforts to better utilize the private sector, it gave its blessing to the project last year.

The zoo said its revenue was 1.47 billion yen in fiscal 2003, compared with 2.5 billion yen in fiscal 1990. The revenue mainly comprises metro government subsidies and admission fees.

To supplement its revenue, Ueno Zoo in April began accepting donations from supporters.

After coughing up 10,000 yen for an adult or 1,000 yen per child, donors can choose to be supporters of the whole zoo or of a certain animal. Supporters can also participate in special events that allow them to see animals up close. They also get discounts at shops inside the zoo.

"I hope people will feel familiar with our zoo by providing support for the animals and thinking of them as their own," Komiya said.

He said he hopes zoo supporters will expand over generations.

Hiromi Aoyagi opted to support raptorial birds with her donation. She said she did so to obtain more information about the zoo and its animals.

An artist who draws animals on clothes, Aoyagi said she has repeatedly visited the zoo to sketch animals.

"I want to support the zoo, even though I can only make a small donation," she said.

Zoo officials said about 500 people have registered as supporters.

The zoo hopes to collect 10 million yen through the scheme by the end of March. Donations so far have totaled 6 million yen, they said.

Ueno Zoo's heyday was in the early 1970s after it received a gift of two giant pandas from China.

Annual attendance, which hovered around 3 million to 4 million during the 1950s and 1960s, surged to 7 million.

In fiscal 2003, the figure was 3.16 million.

Komiya said he doesn't want crowds like those seen in the 1970s. The zoo was so overcrowded at the time that visitors were unable to properly see the animals, he said.

But he would like to see more people visit on weekdays.

About 65 percent of the 3.08 million people who visited the zoo in fiscal 2002 came on weekends and national holidays.

Shinichiro Maki, director of the Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Network for Zoo Enrichment, said collecting donations and placing ads are common practices at zoos overseas. It could be an effective way for public zoos in Japan to supplement their lack of revenue, he said.

He said that despite the severe financial situation and declining number of visitors, many local governments want to keep their zoos open because they are intended for environmental education.

One success story is a zoo run by the city of Asahikawa, Hokkaido.

Asahiyama Zoo, which opened in 1967, saw annual visitors peak at 590,000 in 1983. But after theme parks and other attractions opened in Hokkaido and other parts of Japan, the number sank to a record low of 260,000 in 1996, the city said.

Municipal assembly members said the zoo should be closed.

Zoo official Tetsuo Yamazaki said this prompted workers to try to draw crowds back by making the zoo's enclosures more attractive.

The staff have tried to better show the specific behavior of animals, he said, citing as an example renovations made to the orangutan cage in 2001.

The zoo strung ropes between the artificial trees in the cage at a height of 17 meters, allowing the apes to swing from tree to tree rather than walk on the ground, he said.

The zoo also provides visitors with updated information, posting births, for example, on information panels, he said.

"Unless people have new surprises or discoveries, they will not visit a zoo twice or three times," Yamazaki said.

About 823,000 people visited last year, he said, adding that about 1.26 million had come by early December.

The combined income from zoo admissions and fees from rides at a small amusement park inside the facility was 350 million yen in fiscal 2003, compared with 143 million yen in fiscal 1999, city officials said.

But most zoos in Japan fail to showcase their animals in any special manner, according to Maki of the Network for Zoo Enrichment.

Such zoos will continue to see visitor numbers decline and might be forced to close unless local governments clarify what they wish to achieve by showing caged animals. The zoos should conduct market research, he said.

Zoos also need to offer unique exhibitions that are linked to the local community and gain the backing of local residents, Maki said.

"Otherwise, citizens will question why their local governments spend tax money on these facilities," he said.

Ueno Zoo's Komiya said a zoo is not simply a place for leisure or a facility that must generate a profit at any cost.

Zoos should educate young people about the importance of life, he said.

"I want children to have the chance to touch animals and feel their warmth and heartbeat," he said.

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