Facelift for National Zoological Gardens next year | Sunday Observer

Facelift for National Zoological Gardens next year

26 December, 2021

The Dehiwala Zoological Gardens had a record income since opening after Covid with over 6,000 locals visiting the premises last Saturday (18). Other zoological gardens operating under the Department of National Zoological Gardens also had a surge in visitors on that day. Plans are underway to make the locations more visitor-friendly and interactive to provide a holistic experience to visitors.

Shermila Rajapaksa, Director-General of the Department of National Zoological Gardens, in an interview with the Sunday Observer, spoke more about the improvements, especially the plans on making Ridiyagama a fully-fledged safari park.

Following are excerpts of the interview:

Q: What were the immediate priorities when you took over as Director-General?

Shermila Rajapaksa

A The first thing I did when I took over on October 28, was to prepare the premises for the public as all our locations were closed for a long period due to Covid. During the pandemic, the staff was working on shift basis to maintain the animals. But with Covid restrictions lifted, I directed the staff to make their premises clean and attractive for the public.

This was not only in Dehiwala, but also in Pinnawala, Ridiyagama, and other locations. The Dehiwala Zoo, Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage and Pinnawala Zoo, Ridiyagama Safari Park, and other properties such as Gonapala Farm and Kahapala are all under my purview.

I visited the premises and personally ensured that the sanitary facilities are up to standard. The maintenance had been poor due to the closure, so this was the first thing we did. I requested the staff, including the unions, to give suggestions on improving their premises. I went to the locations with the directors and spoke to the staff to hear their suggestions or grievances to sort out issues immediately.

They’ve requested for an increase in the risk allowance and the Department granted it. An employee is entitled to it if they are exposed to a risk. But the problem was that the initial list had all employee names, including the Director-General’s. But the entitlement should be for the ones who had a direct risk! So, I rectified the list and sent it to the Ministry.

There were divisions within the employees and steps were taken to improve communication lines within various units and make employees feel valued. There are over 800 employees in all our locations and misinterpretations and misunderstandings were rife.

So, it was easy to manipulate workers. I addressed this by improving communications within the staff. I started a newsletter in all locations as well, highlighting key activities and decisions taken at meetings. Administrative staff and veterinarians have issues and we hope that these will ease with new communication lines being opened.

There are about 5,000 animals in all locations and veterinarians have a huge responsibility taking care of them. They need all the support they can get. Therefore, I asked the staff to cooperate and work as a team, while including them in the decision-making. We want to start a new journey and most are onboard.

Due to the rift between the operational staff and veterinarians, the organisational structure was haphazard and mixed-ups. Therefore, I streamlined the tasks and trained the employees on their roles to promote all locations as profit-earning entities. Role diagnostic training was conducted initially.

While animal welfare is our priority, we also focused onthe completion of construction projects with the support of the Civil Defence Force, giving priority to staff facilities.

Q: What are the new additions to the Zoological Gardens next year?

We carry out animal exchanges with other zoos within and outside Sri Lanka. This is the preferred way of obtaining animals. We rarely do purchases because there had been several issues with transactions.

I’m first focusing on exchanging among our locations. For example, at Ridiyagama, some animals in excess can be transferred to Dehiwala. These include mammals, birds and reptiles. We usually give priority to single animals when considering exchanges with other countries.

At the Dehiwala Zoo, we have a lone sea lion. So, we are trying to get another one or a pair. Likewise, we have identified several animals that don’t have partners. In addition, our zebras have been inbred. Therefore, the genetic bloodline has weakened resulting in genetic disorders. About three zebras have died as a result. Giraffes are facing the same issue as zebras due to inbreeding. So, introducing new bloodlines is also a priority.

We have prepared an excess list and a shortage list for animal exchanges. There are international platforms to publish this and we communicate with the zoos for exchanges. The issue now is that zoos in other countries have stopped exchanges due to Covid.

China has declared a two-year closure of animal exchanges. But some Indian zoos are still open, so maybe we can exchange next year. But most countries are closed. We have a long list of animals we need such as orangutans, hippopotamus, African elephant, giraffes, mammals, birds and reptiles.

Q: What strategies will you adopt to promote the locations to generate an income?

Since we closed the locations due to Covid, our income was zero. Still, we have to feed our animals and there’s staff expenditure as well. For this recurring expenditure, we are hugely dependent on the Treasury. My aim is to increase the local income since foreign visitors are less these days. So, we have started more engagement with the public.

We don’t have a separate marketing team or an IT team for promotions, so we use the existing staff. When I took over, we didn’t even have an intercom system, payment gateway or email facilities. We are dealing with foreigners and we were not ready to face the current situation let alone the future. So, I’m trying to get these basic things in place for digitisation.

I started a media team to engage with the local media. The news of the birth of five black swans was in the media recently due to this engagement. The swan birth was the first in Sri Lanka. We gave the opportunity for children to name the five babies and the naming was to be held on December 25.

Last Saturday (December 18), we got the highest number of visitors in all our locations and the highest income post Covid. In Dehiwala alone, we had 6,000 visitors, generating an income of nearly Rs.650, 000. Health guidelines are strictly adhered to in all our locations. We have special security inside to ensure that the public adhere to health guidelines. We can’t be complaining about the lack of foreigners but we need to try and harness what’s available now.

Q: What are the future projects planned?

At present, visitors can only see the animals and leave. I want to make this a better experience by upgrading the premises to be more interactive. We are planning to have a selfie wall, and activities such as petting animals, walk with an elephant, and so on.

At Ridiyagama, we want to start a camping site where visitors can stay overnight. We are in the process of designing it. Even in Pinnawala, we are planning to do this. We see a lot of wedding couples coming here to take pictures. We want to seize this opportunity to provide facilities to hold functions, turning our auditorium into a function hall to generate more income.

We also want to start a foster care program so that the public can donate towards animal welfare. We are working on the scheme on how to contribute to daily, monthly or annual meals, and so on.

We will allow individuals or corporates to foster animals to raise some funds. So, if the Covid continues, we won’t have total dependence on government funding. Animal enrichment programs are ongoing now to keep the animals engaged and healthy.

My main goal is to develop Ridiyagama as a safari park. Animal activists are also against caging animals. So, I want to promote Ridiyagama once the construction work is completed. We have 500 acres there, which includes 55 acres for elephants alone. When the whole park is done, there will be 85 acres allocated for elephants. Basically, we have made it a natural environment for the animals.

This is my dream project. Some animal activists demand to close the Dehiwala zoo. But we have a lot of little children coming to the zoo and they are fascinated about the animals. This is the only place in the country where you can see an animal alive. My aim is to get rid of the cages and have enclosures where animals can have a more natural and spacious environment. Even the Pinnawala zoo has only Sri Lankan animals.

There too, for example, the leopard lives in a 1 ½ - 2 acre enclosure. The public doesn’t know about this.Therefore, I have started rebranding and marketing it. We hope to complete the projects as soon as possible and provide a novel experience to the public next year.