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Published: October 30th 2009
Once more I was off on another overnight bus trip. Its almost like there are no other schedules on Sumatra except overnight! I had been variously told that the Bukittinggi to Medan run took 14 hours, 18 hours, 20 hours and 24 hours, so I didn’t quite know what to expect. It took 20 hours, and it wasn’t too bad of a trip actually, far more comfortable than any of the other overnighters I endured in Indonesia. The bus left Bukittinggi at 1pm, and almost the entire way up to nightfall the road went through forest. There were small villages here and there and some associated fields but the forest was right there behind them, and for a lot of the time the trees were crowding right down to the roadside. It made a big change after places like Malaysia and Java.
Medan was not as nice a town as Bukittinggi. I fact it’s a bit of a hole really, and it has this weird creepy paedophile air about it. There are shops everywhere selling lifesize stuffed toys of little girls in mini-skirts; I saw a portrait shop where all the photos on display were of little girls posing; and
I saw a little boy wearing a denim jacket with a slogan on the back that read “OZ KIDS Easy To Enjoy”
There are certain things you discover as soon as you arrive in southeast Asia, one of which is that certain words on buses don’t mean anything at all, they’re just put on the signs to look nice, words like “express”, “non-stop”, even “AC”, but the bus that took the cake was one I saw in Medan that was labelled “super exclusive executive royal”. (Other words that are meaningless are “open 24 hours” and “no smoking”).
I went looking for the Hotel Alamanda, listed in Lonely Planet. It no longer exists. Neither does my second choice from Lonely Planet, Sarah’s Guesthouse. I ended up at the Pondok Wisata Angel, which was pleasant and cheap and not in Lonely Planet. I didn’t want to spend any longer than necessary in Medan so I used this first afternoon there to visit the zoo. I was told that it was quite a way out of town because the old zoo in the centre had been closed down and all the animals moved to a big new site about five or
six years ago, which sounded very promising indeed. Lonely Planet calls the Medan Zoo an abomination and I was hoping that would prove as with everything else in Lonely Planet to be no longer the case. However the person I was talking to also praised the way you could give the orangutans cigarettes and they would smoke….
On first impressions things seemed good at the zoo. When you come in through the gate it doesn’t even look like a zoo, just a big emptiness of grass and trees with a few horses grazing here and there. Walking to the right you soon come to the first exhibit, a row of pheasant aviaries. There’s nothing wrong with these aviaries at all, perhaps a bit small but no smaller than you’d see in many private collections, and certainly a damn sight bigger than the ones at Bukittinggi zoo. After these aviaries its quite a walk to the next lot of cages. These are also aviaries but look more like monkey cages (the sort of big ugly monkey cages you often see in Asian zoos). In fact they were so rusted, with holes patched up with misfitting mesh, that it looked like
monkey cages that had been moved whole over from the old zoo site. Each of the four cages was divided in half, although the two halves of each contained the same birds on either side. The first aviary held Brahminy kites, the next three magnificent lesser adjutants, the third a blue and a green peacock, and the fourth was empty. After a further walk you come once more to aviaries, these ones pleasantly constructed with green frames, although the interiors were pretty bare of furnishings that would have spruced them up nicely. There were four sets of these green aviaries, each consisting of four separate compartments, with a range of birds from chickens to herons to cockatoos.
The curious impression one had gained thus far on the visit was that you were in one of those city parks that happens to have a few aviaries scattered around to add some interest. They were interesting, sure, but one didn’t get the feeling one was actually in a zoo at all. So far though it was all good, even if the second lot of aviaries had been very ugly and rusting, but what came next shocked me to the
core. I rounded a bend in the path and saw two tiny cages standing on the grass, the sort of cages that you might put a dog in to transport it. Each of these cages held a macaque. They weren’t isolated cages either. A few metres away were similarly tiny wire cages for an agile gibbon, a white-handed gibbon, a pair of silvered langurs, a juvenile siamang, and a pig-tailed macaque. I have literally, as far as I can recall, never seen cages this bad in any zoo (or pet shop, abbatoir, torture chamber) anywhere. The gibbon cages were the largest of the lot and they measured roughly five foot high, six foot across the front and three foot front-to-back. The siamang, appallingly, was incarcerated in a cell about three foot across the front and two foot high and wide. They were like the primate versions of home parrot cages. Every cage was on little legs and the food was placed on sheets of corrugated iron underneath so the animal reached through the mesh to get it. Every cage was mesh on all four walls and could be entirely surrounded if there were enough people. It was the most disgusting
sight I’ve ever seen.
Amazingly, just ten or twenty metres away was another set of large aviaries. One of these aviaries, containing a single black eagle Ictinaetus malayensis
(labelled as “Elanus coerulens” which is a mangled version of Elanus caeruleus
, the black-winged or black-shouldered kite), could have housed all those primates and they would have had more room than they collectively had in the cages they were in. (Not that I’m suggesting they should all be thrown in one big cage, but you see my point). The other two aviaries in this block held five Brahminy kites (making eleven total for the zoo) and six Malayan porcupines Hystrix brachyurus
. There were six porcupines (I think maybe all related given the way they were following each other round) and while I was delighted to see them because I like porcupines, and glad to see them in a very large (albeit entirely concrete) cage, it was horribly tempered by the knowledge those poor primates were going insane just metres away in their ridiculous cells. Another set of similarly large aviaries a bit further on contained more eagles, crowned pigeons and night herons. But tellingly, between the two sets of aviaries
was another one of those big rusty cages like the adjutants were in near the start which, although empty and overgrown, had an old label still on it for “lutung” which is the Indonesian name for langurs. It gave the distinct impression that all those big cages actually were where the monkeys and gibbons had been kept but for some reason they had been turned over to birds and the monkeys stuck in tiny cages, as if whoever ran the place liked birds a lot and was just keeping the monkeys there because the visitors expected them. I don’t know the truth because no-one knew or wanted to tell me why the primates were being kept in the terrible way they were.
The next lot of enclosures were a surprise in the exact opposite way to the monkey cages. Instead of being tiny and obscene they were large and wouldn’t look out of place in many Western zoos. There were four in a row, each identical in construction, being solid walls on the back and sides with a deep concrete moat at the front (empty, which was certainly a hazard to the animals, but it looked like they were
meant to be water-filled). The first had at least one orangutan in it (hiding under a mound of grass against the wall); there definitely needed to be more climbing structures in here, instead of just the two poles and ropes with tyres, but there was lots of room. The second enclosure held at least one tiger; the third I could see nothing in but presume it to also be a tiger. Both these enclosures were grassed and had small trees in them. The fourth had a sun bear and was the poorest of the four, being smaller and entirely concrete (why do zoos always seem to keep bears on concrete?), and this was also the only one where the access gates to the off-display dens were shut, which meant the bear was forced to remain out with little in the way of shade. I roughly measured the tiger enclosure (by pacing it) at between 75 and 80 feet across the front, so a decent size (the other two large enclosures were the same size; the bear enclosure about half as big).
After all the preceding cages and avaries there was a whole lot of nothing, just walking past quite
pleasant scenery, until arriving at the next animals, which were some average/quite good enclosures for deer (chital, rusa and sambar), with aviaries for mostly reptiles opposite: the first held a water monitor, the second a huge reticulated python, the third a mix of civets (a small-toothed palm civet, and some common palm civets that looked liked members of one litter), and the fourth was labelled as a cobra which surprised me that a cobra would be kept in an aviary-style cage, but it was in fact massive king cobra coiled up inside a tiny bird-cage placed inside the aviary. After that were a row of largish pens which appeared to be originally for crocodiles although only two still held these (one in each), another held a pair of common cassowaries (in very muddy conditions), and one was where the horses were stabled.
After a bit more walking you arrive back at the entrance with no more animals along the way. So that was the Medan Zoo on its larger site, a curious mix of good(ish), average, poor(ish), and downright obscene housing. All the animals were kept around the perimeter of the property, the centre being all trees and grass
but of such rough terrain that it was not likely to be used for visitor recreation (such as picnics). Even with so few animals it took 1.5 hours to walk the circuit. There is so much potential for the site but so little being taken advantage of, although I suspect that money is an issue even though it’s a city-owned zoo. There was almost no-one there; it was Friday, perhaps weekends are busy, but there doesn’t seem to be any bus system to get there so you need to go by becak (the Sumatran version of a tuk-tuk). All up, I’d have to say that if the monkey cages weren’t there (ie if the monkeys were in some of the larger aviaries) and if some of the other cages were tarted up a bit then it would be an alright zoo, especially if the centre spaces were utilised for enclosures (but still retaining the open feel of the place). As it is now though, those monkey cages alone make it a disgrace and bring the whole place down.
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