The PATA Department Store Zoo – Is it “The Saddest Zoo in the World” ?

Opinion piece – Related to this Daily Mail article.

During a recent visit with a German film team there was one cage covered by a netting material, which showed a primate running up and down behind it.  When the ape climbed to the top where his face was visible, it became clear that it was a bonobo.  I have visited the zoo some five times over the last 20 years to document developments, the last visit being during the CITES COP in 2013 when this bonobo was not present.

This now makes it the only zoo in the world I know off which holds all the four great ape species, as well as a number of gibbons, within 20 paces of each other. Clearly, it was time to ask once again some relevant questions.

In evaluating the Pata Zoo operation in Bangkok and the status of the native but also exotic CITES listed species it contains, the lack of corresponding national legislation is a key issue.  There appears to be no clear answer.  Discussions with the relevant authorities resulted in us being shown some WARPA listing of protected species, which did not include Pan Paniscus.  Below is a legal opinion on the issue of non-compliance with the convention by countries who have not fully implemented corresponding national legislation (a wide range of parties), with Thailand being a major player in this context:

The reasons why such a large majority of CITES Parties have so far failed to enact implementation legislation, or have enacted legislation which is limited to certain aspects of the Convention, are unclear. It has sometimes been argued that such legislation was unnecessary since, once ratified, the Convention automatically became a part of the national legislation of the Party concerned and was, therefore, directly binding upon private citizens.

“(…) As, however, in most if not all legal systems, criminal penalties may only be imposed by an Act of Parliament or an equivalent instrument, the Convention provides a clear obligation for Parties to enact appropriate legislation. The failure to do so constitutes a violation of the Convention.”

Thus, the mere ratification of CITES without the adoption of appropriate implementation legislation can never be sufficient to ensure an effective enforcement of the Convention, if only because penalties for violations of the provisions of CITES can only be imposed by national legislation.” (1)

Thailand did, ten years after ratifying the convention, enacted the WARPA act, which seems to be more than just insufficient in dealing with many aspects of the illegal wildlife trade.  A further updating of this legislation is still being debated.

Once again, the question arises why the founding fathers of the convention wrote into the constitution enforcement tools like suspending countries from commercial and non-commercial trade.  With Thailand having ratified the convention in 1983 and not having the corresponding national laws adapted, 35 years later, should be considered a criteria for such a recommendation.

There is clearly a wide range of players active on the ground in Thailand, and using the country as a transit destination fully aware that the absence of relevant legislation represents the fig leaf behind which they can operate.  The Pata Zoo owners are clearly one of these parties.

PATA owners Khun Kanit Sersirigmongkol and his veterinarian
1980s permit for Cercopitec exports to Belgium

In the context of the Pata Zoo facility, and the bonobo now in residence, the legal position appears to be that it is up to the government authority to prove that it was illegally imported.  In discussing the issue of this import with the respective special task force team at the National Parks Department (Khun Thiadej Palsuwan, Somkiat Soontornpitakkool of the CITES MA and  the DG of DNP Khun Thanya Neitithammakun), we were first told that the bonobo had been imported legally and been in residence for decades.  But when we asked for corresponding documentation, we were showed the attached CITES export permit from the DRC for Cercopithecus primates to Belgium, having absolutely nothing to do with any import of a bonobo.

Some points to consider:

Typical bonobo fear grin
  • The bonobo presently on display (which might not be the first the Pata Zoo imported) is of a very nervous disposition, screaming and showing the fear grin whenever certain staff members approach.  This is not the usual behavior of an ape that has been in the same setting for decades and has an acceptable quality of life.
  • He looks like a young adult with no bald spot and clean white teeth.
  • A range of experts who have evaluated photographs estimate this male to be between 6 to 12 years old.
  • I have received reliable information that this bonobo was imported by a key dealer from the DRC (with offices in Thailand) just prior to the CITES COP of 2013, which he also attended.  This dealer should have been put on an Interpol red list a long time ago, as he has been involved in a wide range of wildlife trafficking for decades.
  • The Zoo vet asked me if it was possible to breed chimpanzees with bonobo and if any such hybrids existed, implying that they had tried and not succeeded
  • This is one more confirmation that the Pata Zoo owners also operate another private collection/holding/trading facility.
  • In June 2011, I filmed at the zoo and the images show a male tiger, four sun bears, a large male orangutan, three chimpanzees, and no bonobo.  At the present time, only one chimp is left of the original group and I was told that the larger animals had been moved to a facility in the country side…

Missing animals from the Pata Zoo documented in 2011

On earlier occasions at the Zoo, I also documented the male gorilla, which was still alive, but now only the female is left.  There were also two polar bears and penguins, which are now all gone

Asking for records from the authorities or the zoo management turned out to be a waste of time.  We were eventually shown the document below, which was meant to establish that the bonobo had arrived 26 years ago. 

Inventory list for Pata Zoo indicating a bonobo which arrived 26 years ago

But it is simply some kind of an inventory list, with the Thai Buddhist year of 35 being given as the arrival date of a wide range of CITES Appendix I listed species.  Assuming the bonobo was a youngster when he arrived, this would make him close to 30 years old now.  It is also an indication that there might have been another bonobo that was imported at the time, and perished.  Plus there were other CITES I listed primates, like the Mandrills, which have disappeared from the Zoo.

While Thailand has a Zoo Association of which the Pata Zoo is a member, the standards do not seem to include the keeping of a stud book or proper records of animals imported, exported, or perishing.  How a zoo association can accredit members who do not comply with the most basic of criteria in terms of inbreeding, cross breeding of subspecies, and general animal welfare, is beyond me and will hopefully be addressed during the upcoming WAZA conference.

The status of a range of the other CITES I listed species presently held at this deplorable facility is not very clear either, be it the chimps, the orangutans, or the remaining gorilla.

Reports of the International Primate Protection League state that the male gorilla had arrived in Thailand on Feb.  21st 1984 (after Thailand ratified the CITES convention), with no clear indication of its origin.  A prominent German wildlife dealer based in Central Africa managed to import a female western lowland gorilla from Equatorial Guinea in 1990, which was later transferred to the owners of the Pata department store.  The dealer in question had moved to Equatorial Guinea from Cameroon after similar exports and after the CITES secretariat sent out a notice suspending Equatorial Guinea from such trade; as such, Thailand should never have been allowed the import.  Shortly after this transaction, Walter Sensen was jailed in Germany for some of these infractions.

In its report, IPPL also states that it has reliable information that a baby gorilla was shipped by unidentified parties from Moscow to Thailand a few years earlier, and had arrived frozen to death.

During the recent visit to Bangkok we were told that the female gorilla has been offered for relocation, at a price tag of some US $200,000. 

Negotiations at the Ministry with special task force members

During our discussion with officials of the ministry and the Pata Zoo, we were also asked to make an offer if we wanted to see the bonobo released for relocation.  This proves that this is all about money, and that there is seemingly no animal welfare consideration part of the decision making process.  Plus, of course, international laws provides for the fact that property illegally acquired in one jurisdiction (which it would have been under national laws in Africa – and under the CITES convention) cannot become the legal property of a third party; as such, offering these apes as part of a sales transaction is a slap in the face of any party opposed to the illegal wildlife trade and the officials administering the CITES convention.

After 35 years of constant non-compliance with the CITES convention on a wide range of fronts, from tiger farming to ivory and live animal illegal traffic, and with very little effort to adapt its national laws with CITES stipulations, Thailand is still a full member of CITES, even though it is one of the key basket cases in terms of constant infractions. 

The Pata department store zoo  and the associated private collection are  key example of what is wrong with the convention and the lack of political will  within the policy makers in Thailand and the CITES enforcement authorities in Geneva.

Karl Ammann, Nanyuki, October 2nd, 2018

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