In March 2017, the journalist Ian Birrell wrote a piece for the ‘i’ newspaper: Why We Must Shut the Zoo Gates.
It’s his view, he’s entitled, but one he might change if he went to Beauval Zoo in France, a beautiful seventy acre park for animals which humans are allowed to share.
Mr Birrell asked ‘what right do we have to rip such creatures from their natural habitats…taking them from the wild forcing them into cramped enclosures’?
No animal in Beauval was taken from the wild. Most were either born there – Beauval specialises in births, five hundred every year – or come from closely monitored, established exchange programmes with other European zoos. There are no cramped enclosures.
Mr Birrell says: ‘elephants are so stressed in zoos they live only half as long as in the wild; they suffer painful foot conditions; five in six are unable to walk normally; three quarters are overweight and more than half display behavioural problems’.
Has he never heard of Karl Popper? ‘The statement that all swans are white is testable by being falsifiable…by the counterexample of the single black swan’.
Not all swans are white. Not all zoos are bad. Journalists are supposed to be neutral. ‘Some’ elephants in ‘some’ zoos experience ‘some’ problems but not in Beauval. Far from being overweight, hobbling in pain, elephants run to catch the apples keepers throw from across the great divide (a ha ha). You would swear they are laughing.
Beauval – it has the distinction of being known by a single word like Madonna, Prince, Adele, Amy, and Bowie – is home to Limbo, an African elephant, who is twenty-six. Far from being, as Mr Birrell says, ‘stuffed behind bars’ he roams around a vast, ever expanding, plain so large that photographers express disappointment he is too far away to get a decent shot. A bit like those in the wild.
In 2012, Limbo’s mate N’Dala had her first offspring. During her pregnancy she enjoyed 24/7 care, more than Princess Diana when she was expecting the future King of England. This first elephant born at Beauval by artificial insemination was named Rungwe after a volcano in South Africa.
The huge elephant territory means new females can join Limbo’s three females and baby Rungwe making it the largest group of elephants in France.
Mr Birrell says that ‘zoos are less educational than a decent TV documentary’. Animal lover Sir David Attenborough disagrees. He is adamant that documentaries, however good, are no substitute for seeing animals up close and personal. He approves of zoos. As does animal lover zoologist and naturalist Chris Packham. His partner even owns one on the Isle of Wight.
Mr Birrell criticises the ‘paucity of information on display for visitors’. Beauval has so much detail on each animal if you read it all there would be no time to enjoy what you came to see. And that’s without the QR Code where visitors can get even more information via their mobile or tablet.
Mr Birrell says ‘hardly any zoo spending really goes on conservation’. Beauval supports forty-five important conservation programmes all over the world.
He also says many so called endangered species are not.
Many were. The Giant Panda is a success story if ever there was one.
Thanks to financial support from Beauval and other zoos for The Chengdu Centre for the Reproduction and Conservation of the Panda in Sichuan Province, the Giant Panda is no longer classified as endangered. Beauval has not revealed how much it pays Chengdu, but Edinburgh Zoo pays £600,000 a year.
China leases its pandas for ten years in exchange for funding for research at Chengdu. The panda is leased to only nineteen zoos in the world outside China so Beauval is special.
Negotiations take place between heads of state.
When Beauval contacted Chengdu there were exchanges of vets and many meetings between it and the owners of Beauval, the Delord family.
Beauval has built extensive outdoor enclosures, air-conditioned indoor enclosures, night lodges and nurseries for its pandas. The Chinese Zone also has attractive pagodas with roofs of glazed tiles, stone carvings and emblematic marble lions imported from Shanghai and Beijing.
When the Chinese visited Beauval, they called it ‘one of the most beautiful in the world… outside of China’.
After six years of negotiation, the Delord’s, Rodolphe and his sister Delphine flew to China to sign the legal agreement surrounding the protection of the panda.
In 2012, Huan Huan and Yuan Zi, with their Chinese keepers, after a direct journey from Chengdu in a specially chartered Boeing 777, landed at Roissy airport. They were welcomed to France by His Excellency the Chinese Ambassador. Escorted by the Gendarmerie, crowds lined the route to Beauval Zoo in St. Aignan sur Cher.
Huan Huan is the female. The couple live separately, as they do in nature. They are solitary animals that meet only to reproduce. They are both eight years old.
Although its digestive system is that of a carnivore, the panda eats almost exclusively bamboo shoots, 20kg a day. It spends fourteen hours feeding and sleeps for the rest. Unlike Edinburgh Zoo where tickets to see the Panda are time limited, visitors to Beauval can spend as long as they like gazing at these magnificent animals. It would be a hard heart indeed which was not stirred.
As well as the ‘i’, Mr Birrell writes for The Mail on Sunday, The Wall Street Journal, The Daily Mail, The Observer, The Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, The Sun and The Spectator. He is also Foreign Correspondent reporting from forty countries.
He started his article by recounting the experience which inspired him to write it.
‘…woken by a giraffe…I watched entranced…I saw a family of elephants…elegant ibex…vervet monkeys…and a warthog striding along the road. A hornbill hopped down beside me at breakfast …we stopped to watch a lioness as she sized up a solitary zebra…’
We cannot be the only readers who felt a little envious. The nearest many will ever get to see a giraffe, an elephant, a monkey or a hornbill is in a zoo.
Thank you Beauval.