National Zoological Gardens: Blending education and leisure

Whilst the objectives might have greatly changed over the years, the enduring appeal of a trip to the zoo has kept this traditional treat at the forefront of the leisure industry. At the National Zoological Gardens in Pretoria, the allure is all about human and animal interaction.

Whilst the Zoo attracts just over 600,000 visitors each year, there is much more to the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa than meets the eye, the facility is immersed in scientific research and conservationism and operates as a proud facility of the National Research Foundation.

Of course things the Zoo’s focus (and size) is very different to when it first opened its doors to the public, on October 21st, 1899, as Craig Allenby, Manager of Commercial Services and Business Development explains:

“The Zoo’s origins are interesting as it was originally part of the Transvaal Museum. The Director received a lot of animals donated for taxidermy but was not keen on euthanizing animals. Whilst the Boer War took place a lot of animals bound for Europe became stranded and the local community started to complain which lead the Government to establish the Zoo.

“We started with a small collection but today we have around 10,000 animals, with a specific focus on African wildlife.”

The main zoo is located within 76 hectares of land in the central area of Pretoria, but also includes a much bigger 2,000 hectare site in Mokopane, Limpopo, roughly two and a half hours away. Combined, the two sites provide employment for over 240 people.

Allenby says that there have been two seminal moments in the Zoo’s history: in 1960 it was declared the National Zoo of South Africa (and remains the largest of its kind today) while in 2004 the site was declared a National Research Facility.

“Those two events were key milestones but it should also not be forgotten that the Zoo was very much a pioneer in design in the 1940s and 50s when we moved from concrete floors and bars to creating more natural displays.”

Today the Zoo is State-owned, with 50 per cent of its funding sourced from the Department of Science and Technology, whilst the Zoo itself is expected to generate the remaining income. With rising salaries and utility costs, not to mention the enormous volumes of animal feed required each day, finding innovative ways to increase turnover is a constant challenge, but one Allenby and his team are always ready to meet:

“There are a number of absolutely essential utility services that we have to pay for including air conditioning, special heating conditions, lighting and water supplies and whilst we source our power from the city, we also operate back-up generators in critical areas and we have critical life support systems for certain areas of the Zoo, including our Aquarium, where we have the largest inland marine aquarium in South Africa.

“In addition to our gate sales we provide our own food and beverage operations for visitors and operate 8 restaurants in total and a number of kiosks which sell snacks and drinks. We also provide facilities for banquets, weddings and corporate events and visitors can also hire golf carts for two hours which makes the Zoo more accessible to older customers and families with children. We also run a cable car and generate income through parking.

“In addition to all of these initiatives we also offer animal adoption opportunities for visitors and receive income from sponsorships and donations,” Allenby continues. “Our Wild Child animal adoption programme enables a member of the public to adopt an animal for a small fee; but this is not so much about creating a new revenue stream as it is giving people an opportunity to get involved in the Zoo – it is all about giving people a feel of ownership.”

Allenby says that the Zoo has no real “personalities” so to speak – but then quickly backtracks and laughs as he recalls the recent episode of “Houdini” the black mamba:

“The lions are a big draw to our zoo, along with the tigers and reptiles – South Africans are fascinated by snakes, and we also have Komodo dragons and sharks. But our biggest draw right now is one of our black mamba snakes, who managed to escape in early March and was missing for about three weeks. The media labelled him “Houdini” and he has become something of a minor celebrity.”

Fortunately Houdini is now safely back in his terrarium, but his dash for freedom does highlight the emphasis the Zoo has to place on security and health and safety.

“South Africa has a well established environmental management department and there are a number of protocols in place on managing animals and operations, but zoos always have to be ready for escaped creatures and have to put in place procedures to recapture them as quickly as possible,” states Allenby.

“After Houdini escaped and was recaptured we carried out an extensive review of what had happened and we also have to be mindful of maintenance issues. Indeed maintenance is one of our biggest challenges, given that we have an ageing infrastructure and given that we are open 365 days a year.

“When we carry out maintenance we have to consider the impact on visitors and try to minimise any disruption – but it is also essential that we do not cause any stress to the animals, particularly if they have to be moved from their compound.

“We have developed a maintenance plan and we try to pre-empt when maintenance might be necessary and whilst we can’t always predict when a pipe might burst, we can act immediately to repair it.”

According to Allenby, providing food for the animals involves a sophisticated supply chain management system which was automated a long time ago.

“The fruit and vegetable that is supplied for the animals has to be of the best quality – we will not compromise on the quality of animal food and expect the best for them. We have defined specifications and our research area constantly monitors and reviews animal feed as nutrition is one of the big areas we focus on.

“The fresh fruit and vegetables come in almost daily and we are located quite close to the fresh produce market. The dry feed – like bedding and hay, comes from further afield in the Northern Cape and we have extensive storage areas for dry feed and also keeping meat frozen for our carnivorous animals.”

Research does of course play a huge role in the Zoo’s activities, not just in terms of animal nutrition, but also gene studies. The Zoo has augmented a number of partnerships with other zoos including San Diego, Moscow and Taipei but also collaborates with other zoos on areas of conservation.

“In 2004 we became a National Research Facility and we have established two strong research centres covering Conservation and Conservation Medicine. We also provide a focus on genetics and wildlife forensics and we have been consulting on rhino conservation matters,” Allenby confirms.

The Research area is also responsible for monitoring and identifying diseases such as avian influenza.

Among the many projects the Research and Conservation team are involved in is the Samango Monkey Working Group, which aims to collaborate and contribute research and expertise into developing and implementing a national based management plan to ensure the long-term preservation of the Samango and their habitat. Another beneficiary is the programme to preserve both white and black rhinos in Africa.

The Zoo plays home to two veterinary areas: one dealing exclusively with the Zoo’s animals, while the other team is involved in research work. The veterinary hospital has recently undergone an upgrade which has seen the introduction of ultrasound technology.

The growth of scientific research at the Zoo is described by Allenby as phenomenal – the staff compliment has grown from zero to 30 full-time employees since the 2004 accreditation, whilst the department has released a number of important papers which have been published in the renowned ‘Science’ magazine, particularly in regards to cheetah conservation.

Education remains a cornerstone of the Zoo’s ethos; both for the general public and staff as Allenby describes:

“Helping to give the public a learning experience is part of the National Research mandate and we try to educate not only about the animals but also the environment. We have a number of programmes that allow us to engage with the public, including a series of animal experiences and a nocturnal programme where visitors can learn what happens at night time. We want visitors to leave the Zoo with a take home message so that they feel empowered to make a difference.

“But our education also relates to facilitating research and providing a platform to benefit science. We provide an in-house programme for veterinary nurses and run other courses in genetics, whilst our scientists also supervise students.

“We have developed close links to many of the nation’s universities, which is helpful when we are looking to recruit, as there is a general skills shortage in areas of science. Finding the right people for the right position and then retaining them is always a big challenge so we are continuously upgrading their education and skills levels.”

The National Zoological Gardens may have a long and proud history, but Allenby is acutely aware of the need to adapt in the current economic climate, as the Zoo looks to an exciting future:

“We have to innovate and we have in recent years concentrated our animal collection on the conservation of African species. Many of our visitors are children and our growth has been down to a number of marketing initiatives – but I think people feel a strong need to reconnect with nature and that is why they come to the Zoo.

“With high unemployment rates we have looked to provide creative pricing structures and to team up with corporate partners like McDonalds (TM), while we have also hosted a number of concerts and events, without losing sight of the primary function of the Zoo.

“We have adopted 4 schools around Pretoria and actively engage with the students and run competitions and youth development programmes. We have introduced a number of free admission days for senior citizens and people suffering financial hardships.

“Our next big focus is a project (in collaboration with a number of Government departments) to work with emerging farmers and to help them develop the crops that we use at the Zoo. They often don’t have a sustainable market and we can provide that with the right nurturing. This scheme will develop over the next couple of years.”

With such foresight, the Zoo is truly touching a wide section of society.