When I first went to China in 2007 part of me was curious as to what wildlife I might encounter, it didn’t take long to find out ‘not much’. China’s fast paced urbanisation has seen almost 500 million rural Chinese people move into cities over the last 35 years, by 2025 China wants to have 70% of the population, roughly 900 million people, in city living. The countries drive to bulldoze and concrete over fields and mountains is not new, Mao Zedongs teachings of ‘Man must conquer nature’ and the Great Leap Forward in the 1950’s an assault on the natural world in China which hasn’t really stopped. Maoist thought suggested that the human race were fundamentally distinct from the natural world, and as such humans should mobilise to overcome the obstacles that nature places in their way.
Pre 1949 there were a couple thousand dams, today there are over 87,000 including the worlds largest – the Three gorges dam, an engineering triumph that also decimated large swaths of natural habitat. If you take a high speed train through China today you will see a ‘half’ mountains, its top cut off or its one side sliced off – precious rock for roads and pavements. It’s fair to say China has not been close to the natural world.
When living in Shanghai you almost have to catch a flight to get into something that resembles the natural world, a forest or mountain walk complete with a solid concrete path and admission ticket. So unsurprisingly zoo’s in China remain a popular attraction for the people.
Putting the obvious cruelty and poor conditions aside I found Zoo’s to be a metaphor for the country’s relationship with the natural world. Here the visitor is in control and the animals are seen as a form of entertainment than something from a world beyond the city. Having visited dozens of them through the country, like China’s cities, they share some sort of blueprint and are much the same. A brown bear pit, usually littered with plastic bottles and licked out food wrappers, a monkey ‘mountain’ (a concrete structure made to look like natural rock) and if it’s a zoo worth visiting then the full glass enclosure of the Giant Panda – always the best accommodation in the zoo. And if the animals are not photogenic enough then rest assured there will be fibre glass and stone animal replicas in which to take your picture with. Afterwards take the ferris wheel with a sausage on a stick, another must for any zoo. For those with extra money to folk out then at the heart of every zoo is the depressing animal performance removing any possible perception of true animal behaviour and the environment in which they come from.
The lack of public awareness in China of how to treat animals still low, on top of the absence of enforceable animal protection laws on the zoo’s themselves is evident on a trip to the zoo. In Nanjing Zoo in 2013 I saw a visitor shooting a bb gun at an elephant, on asking him to stop he replied, ‘don’t worry only plastic pellets’ the lack of understanding isn’t always bad news for the animal. In Beijing 2016 at a drive through wild animal park a mother was mauled to death by a tiger and daughter seriously injured after stepping out of the car apparently due to being car sick.
I was also always interested in the decoration of the zoo’s, to remind the visitor of the natural world, there would sometimes be large canvas posters of lush vegetation with a poorly photoshopped predator in situ – just in case you didn’t get that impression from the grey walled room. As if the zoos are selling something that doesn’t really exist, who wants to see a moon bear in an oversized concrete bowl. Better to climb on top of a model one and capture the experience on a phone.