National Zoological Gardens of South Africa: Preserving a precious legacy

In an ever-changing world of sophistication and new leisure activities, the allure of getting close-up to nature remains compelling and still provides a magical experience for young and old alike. The challenge of course is one of economics and competition for an operation like the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa.

AquariumThe Pretoria-based zoo is the national zoo of South Africa and has a rich history dating back to 1899. However, the challenge of linking humans to their environment has never been greater in times of financial uncertainty and competition from other leisure pursuits, while the operating costs of such a vast facility – and the need for revenue sources to keep pace with these, makes for a tough climate.

The 85-hectare Zoo in Pretoria houses 424 specimens of 78 mammal species, 1,805 specimens of 150 bird species, 2,627 specimens of 169 fish species, 456 specimens of 40 invertebrate species, 232 specimens of 65 reptile species, and 70 specimens of 6 amphibian species.

Among the chief attractions are the African “Big Five”, along with cheetahs, giraffes, tigers (black and white), Kodiac bears and a koala bear (the only one in Africa). There are also a couple of stunning exhibits including a waterhole with an array of antelope and an okapi.

The National Zoological Gardens of South Africa is the largest zoo in the country and the only one with national status. More than 550,000 people visit the Zoo annually. The total length of the walkways in the Zoo in Pretoria is approximately 6 kilometres.

An Aquarium and Reptile Park also form part of the Zoo facility in Pretoria. The Aquarium is the largest inland marine aquarium in the country, while the Zoo is also home to the third largest collection of exotic trees.

Dr Clifford Nxomani is the Managing Director at the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, and despite the challenges, runs an efficient and empathetic operation which is adapting to the evolving commercial and ecological environment.

“Apart from being a zoo, we are also a National Research Facility and we have a special onus on wildlife health and research. That means we are Government-owned, as a business unit of the National Research Foundation we fall under the Department of Science and Technology and we receive an annual subsidy which covers just under 50 per cent of our annual budget,” he describes.

“Along with the zoo, our main activities centre around maintaining our animal collection and undertaking wildlife management and conservation work, as well as educating the public about nature conservation. We occupy a large green area within the city centre and it is also an opportunity for the public to be one with nature,” he continues.

The zoo has a rich history and was established back in 1899, growing significantly over the coming decades, as Dr Nxomani explains:

It was founded with a small collection of 36 animals and in 1916 was declared a National Zoo.

“Over the years we have gained lots of additional operational facilities and the Lichtenburg Biodiversity Conservation Centre was established in 1974 by the fourth Director of the Zoo, Dr Frank Brand, when a land grant was received from the then-Town Council of Lichtenburg. This facility was established as it was perfectly suited to house animals that favoured a cold and drier climate and were able to roam freely.

“Almost 40 species of mammals were bred at the Centre, including Père David’s deer, Scimitar-horned oryx and Przewalski’s horses. However, this centre was closed in 2012 and we now only operate Mokopane.”

In 1981 the Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre, located some 2 ½ hours outside of Pretoria, opened its doors to the public, serving as a satellite station of the National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, Pretoria Zoo (NZG).

The Centre covers an area of 1,395 hectares, comprising of a Zoo like environment of around 7 hectares, the rest being made up of breeding camps and a free ranging area, all accommodating a large variety of African species as well as species form other continents.

In December 2007 the Centre was given national protective status with it been proclaimed as part of the Makapan Valley World Heritage Site, one of the three serial site forming part of the Cradle of Humankind.

“The Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre provides us with our own breeding facilities, which means we can control the genetic demography of our animal collection and can replenish parts of the collection as required,” Dr Nxomani emphasizes.

“Our research started around 2006 and has 2 main programmes which concentrate on molecular ecology & conservation genetics as well as wildlife health & eco-physiology– looking at the genetic and ecological health of wildlife populations both in the zoo and in the wild,” he continues.

butterfly“We are also trying to establish reproductive biology expertise that can look at issues such as artificial insemination and how we can help to preserve and propagate critically endangered species. This is particularly pertinent given the new international laws surrounding the movement of animals – it is now much harder to obtain the relevant permits to move animals across continents so our research work in this area becomes more important if we are to ensure sustainable captive wildlife populations.”

Of course much of this work takes place behind the scenes and the public only catches a glimpse of the research taking place. In Pretoria, NZG attracts over half a million visitors per year, with Dr Nxomani suggesting that the vast majority of visitors are returning customers and the zoo works with the hotels to promote zoo visits

“Up to 90 per cent of our visitors are from the Pretoria area and are drawn from a 2 hour radius of the city. We have a sprinkling of international visitors which perhaps makes up 5 per cent of our gate but these tend to be very ad hoc, and the vast majority hail from the rest of the Continent,” he says.

“Resources and funding impact on our marketing capabilities and whilst the Internet and social media are growing areas for us, we utilise opportunities to run press releases in the local press as one of our major sources of promotion. “

The need for visitors is an absolutely crucial element to the ongoing sustainability of the NZG, with existing budgets putting a limit on the amount of refurbishment that can take place annually on animal enclosures, which typically are built to last around 15 years.

“The bulk of our income is derived from visitors to the zoo,” Dr Nxomani acknowledges, “we receive revenues from entrance fees and we manage an onsite restaurant and have a spread of kiosks around the zoo. We also operate venues for functions and meetings and these operations combined bring in around R40 million a year.

“It is a very cyclical business and we tend to be busiest around public and school holidays and between November and March when the spring and summer season is at its height. However, changing weather patterns can have an effect and last summer we were almost rained out.”

Dr Nxomani says that NZG is home to around 5,000 individual animals and over 700 different species, based in 3 main components: the main zoo, a reptile park and a major aquarium.

Unsurprisingly, animal feed (including meat, fish and vegetables) constitutes a major cost to NZG, annually in the region of R5 million. Dr Nxomani says that typically the zoo works with local suppliers, tending to work on 3 to 5 year contracts to limit costs. Maintenance is another huge cost and with ageing enclosures, there is pressure on to find new sources of funding to renew facilities not just for the animals but the visiting public.

NZG employs around 280 permanent staff and also recruits a number of interns each year, looking to gain work experience. The research facilities provide a platform for postgraduate students from local universities, while the variety of skills deployed across the Zoo and Mokopane centre are varied.

bird“One of the biggest challenges is the whole spectrum of expertise that we require,” Dr Nxomani states. “Traditionally zoos hired people that were animal lovers and wanted to work with animals and had that enthusiasm. Today there are far more people who just want a job and it can be difficult to entrench that passion for looking after the animals and talking about them with passion. The challenge is to train those people and emphasize that we need to work in a certain way.

“There is also an ever-growing challenge presented by compliance which can be costly and there are so many hoops that we have to go through these days to achieve simple things.

“However, the biggest and most frustrating aspect is not having adequate funding to do all that needs to be done for refurbishment and establishment of quality public facilities. For me as the leader of the facility, I can have the grandest of plans but without the necessary revenues it is hard to meet that expectation. That is the most difficult element, to ensure that we remain relevant and competitive.

“Whilst we are Government-owned, we have to run as a business to remain sustainable for the future and we need employees with both technical skills and good business acumen. We are trying to get the right mix of people who understand the challenges we face.”

Despite the challenges and economic realities, Dr Nxomani remains very upbeat about the future:

“Our big challenge going forwards will be to try to convince the Government that we need to develop a new funding formula for facilities like ours.

“On our side we are looking to establish an alternative gate system which will mean people from the suburbs don’t need to travel through the city centre to get here. We are working with universities to design a different entrance to the zoo at the moment.

“We are also in the process of establishing a wildlife forensics facility for which we are converting an old building on the site here. We hope to have this opened next year. In the more immediate future, we are anticipating the arrival of some chimpanzees in the next couple of months as we continue our programme to replenish our animal stocks,” he concludes.