Thailand’s Booed Zoo

Some environmentalists, and many animal rights advocates, believe zoos are inherently inhumane; others argue that if zoos use kind practices, they’re valuable to society and help preserve wildlife. But in the case of the Chiang Mai Night Safari in northern Thailand, there’s been widespread outrage from many observers. The "night safari" is a zoo in which animals are kept in spacious, landscaped enclosures that are thought to simulate natural habitat, while guests visit at night.

But according to Chiang Mai-based Joe Cummings, the long-time author of the Lonely Planet Thailand guidebook: "It’s a project that seems to be more reviled than loved," noting that at first there was "a furor over the land use" that infringes on an important watershed for locals and is near a sacred temple.

Another persistent issue has been where and how the animals were obtained and if they have been procured legally, as there has been no public record. When asked if the roster of the animals" origins was available, a Night Safari spokesperson questioned the necessity for "details," adding there was "no need to clarify for the public since we already have the internal control office to check on us."

This cryptic reaction isn’t surprising given the zoo’s recent controversies. The driving force behind the safari, Thailand’s Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra (who is originally from Chiang Mai), went to Kenya in December to secure 175 animals—including giraffes, flamingoes, hippos, zebras, dik-diks, impalas, buffaloes and gazelles—in exchange for a reported $1 million to go towards Kenyan conservation efforts, and a promise to train Kenyans in the way of the Thai mahout (elephant trainers, whose practices many consider harsh).

Unfortunately, the deal was in apparent violation of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), causing an immediate uproar. Kenya’s High Court halted the trade.

Meanwhile, in Thailand, Night Safari Director Plodprasop Suraswadi had just released details of the destination’s menu, which was to include tiger, lion, elephant, giraffe, crocodile and zebra meat. After public outcry, he retracted the idea.

A few weeks later, during a television debate with two activists, Suraswadi grew noticeably frustrated. Afterwards, Suraswadi’s aides were videotaped assaulting his opponents physically. The matter has since been turned over to the legal system.

Meanwhile, the 323-acre zoo, meant to hold 1,500 animals, has obtained a thousand of the first residents. The official opening date was April of last year, but it’s twice been bumped up. Some members of the public have been let in for free, and there have been reports of hyenas fighting each other; cranes looking gloomy and overcrowded; llamas having trouble acclimatizing to the tropical weather and overall discomfort from animals that have endured bright lights shining on them at night.

But according to the safari spokesperson, "there are no problems whatsoever so far."