I’m writing this piece in the fifth hour of the fourteen hour flight to the U.S. from Beijing. I’ve already watched two movies, had a couple glasses of wine, and did some work. I’m reflecting on my whirlwind trip in Ordos, Inner Mongolia for the Chinese Association of Zoological Gardens’ (CAZG) 2nd annual conference, where although I was only there for 24 hours, I presented twice for a total of 5 hours. While these stats are quite impressive, the most impressive thing about this trip was the evolution that I am seeing in Chinese zoos and aquariums.
I’ve been coming to China for 8 years, for projects and for exploration of the potential market for zoo designers here. Although PGAV has been fairly consistently engaged in project work in this massive country over the last decade, most of that has been related to theme parks. The sudden and intense growth of the middle class has created a thirst for leisure activities, and while museums, water parks, historic cities, natural areas, and theme parks have been highly targeted for updates and new projects, the desire for modern, innovative zoos has lagged behind. In my opinion, this is directly related to the state of Chinese society’s relationship to animals and nature: the persistent desire for tiger and rhino parts for traditional medicines; exploitation of baby animals, especially tiger cubs, for photos at zoos; the market for ivory as status symbols; the levels of pollution in the water and air.
But recently, the Chinese government has dedicated itself to reversing these trends: last year’s historic ivory ban, the continued dedication to the Paris climate accord, and the highly visible campaigns to educate Chinese citizens against the use of animal parts in medicine (as partnerships with organizations like WWF). I’ve even seen a difference over the years in small things that we take for granted in the U.S.: recycling in airports; signs asking people not to waste paper to save the trees; marketing campaigns for cities like Ordos that highlight how green the city is; encouraging the use of reusable water bottles with clean water stations at airports.
Even though I was only able to spend a day with the Chinese zoo association, I was elated to see the level of advancement in only the two to three years that I’ve been working with them. As I spoke to the crowd about creating spaces that respond to the nature of animals, not to coerce them, to allow them to make decisions on their own even if that decision means your visitors don’t get to see them easily or on each and every visit, I saw heads nodding. A delegate coming to my aid when another challenged my assertion that extra spaces like flexible yards and enrichment rooms are worth the effort and cost. The zoo that proudly shared their designs with me for three new projects–the incredible difference between the designs that had been completed only two years ago, and the ones completed within the month. The level of investment in aspects dedicated exclusively to welfare. The new center for conservation and education.
The CAZG itself is advancing. The conference attendance nearly doubled in one year—only its second year. The Association has created a department dedicated exclusively to design, hiring two full-time designers to aid government-run zoos in improvements. They spent over five years creating a set of design regulations, released this year, that blow our APHIS regs out of the water. They are hungry for knowledge, and thirsty for implementation.
All of this means that the evolution of Chinese zoos will continue to advance at a break-neck speed. And that’s a wonderful thing. The typical city zoos that are pervasive throughout the country are as deplorable as you can imagine. Undersized and rusted cages. Limited education focus, if any at all. Lack of enrichment or even natural substrates. Private facilities have and will continue to be at the forefront of innovation due to bigger budgets, but there are a few shining examples of upcoming change at public institutions such as Nanjing Hongshan Forest Zoo and Beijing Zoo. As long as the government continues to infuse capital into these organizations—and hopefully continue to increase that level, Chinese zoos will soon be as modern as those in the West. And, perhaps even more importantly (and as has been true throughout history), the improvements in zoos will be a reflection of the changing relationship of the Chinese people with the natural world.