Zoo Shows: Conveying a Conservation Message to the Masses

by Jon Coe Greetings zoo friends and thoughtful critics!

If you have fifteen minutes have a look at the video below.  This is the complete elephant show from Bali Safari & Marine Park, and my long time friends and client, Taman Safari Indonesia. [youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-cNml7-KUTQ] I designed the elephant show venue, including the wrap around water feature with underwater elephant viewing. But the important thing is how this show has evolved from a somewhat circus-like show demonstrating human control over elephants to a conservation melodrama where elephants are characters in the play, often performing well out of sight of trainers.

The drama starts from the expected view of forest cutters and loggers as “bad guys” (dressed in black as in traditional Asian drama) harassing, shooting, “wounding” and  driving off elephant “victims”. But in the next scene the elephants become “bad guys” destroying village crops and endangering local people. Finally elephants, under proper Forestry Department management, become heroes and win local support.

To me these abrupt and startling changes of perspective are effectively used to suggest the real complexity of wildlife conservation. The show mentions Taman Safari’s long-term support of the Way Kambas National Park elephant sanctuary they developed in Sumatra with the Forestry Department. But it is careful not to propose unrealistic “quick fixes” or blame either villagers or elephants. It presents, albeit in cartoon style, the realistic certainty that hard choices and compromises are required to create sustaining populations of farmers and elephants. The final message is something like “We don’t know the answer, but we know we will find the answer by working together”. Who can argue with that?

Elephant-show taman safari

On a practical level, I’m not a supporter of full contact elephant management or coercive training methods. But in this case, however training is done (and I don’t know how it was done) a number of elephants individually and collectively carry out long sequences of learned behaviours far from trainers. And while some appear to be “going through the motions”, others are clearly having fun. Most trainers would not encourage training elephants to chase people, even on stage. But the young elephants do seem to enjoy this part...wonder why!

From a behavioural enrichment perspective, the elephants have a wide range of physical activities including short bursts of running and swimming in a highly varied pace, usually with conspecifics. While the routine isn’t varied, neither is the exercise routine of most human athletes and performers, who nevertheless seem to find them enriching.

Most guests wouldn’t recognize the high levels of training skill and innovation required to produce such a show. They, especially high numbers of children, simply want to be entertained in enjoyable and understandable ways. In my experience such shows are the best way to connect with large audiences in mass tourism settings, where individualistic immersion on simulations of isolated jungle trails fail. In my opinion, major zoos can and should have both to reach their highly varied audiences most effectively and create that moment of “positive arousal”, as Terry Maple refers to it--that bonding moment of empathy upon which all effective education is based.

Jon Coe is a world-renowned zoo designer with over one hundred and sixty planning and design projects for over eighty-two zoos, aquariums, botanical gardens, theme parks and national parks in thirteen nations.  The goal of his work is to collaborate in the creation of enriching and sustainable environments for people, plants and animals.