The aye-aye, the jungle cat and the salamander: Svetlana Akulova on replenishing the collection of the Moscow Zoo

The aye-aye, the jungle cat and the salamander: Svetlana Akulova on replenishing the collection of the Moscow Zoo
The director of the Moscow Zoo talks about the preservation of rare and endangered animal species, Zoo reconstruction and the new earthen China pavilion with pandas and golden monkeys.

Svetlana Akulova, director of the Moscow Zoo

Svetlana Akulova was officially appointed as the director of the Moscow Zoo in early October, after serving for six months as its acting director. In an interview to mos.ru, Ms Akulova talks about her plans to replenish the zoo with new birds and beasts. Every cage will have a camera to observe the animals round the clock, and slot machines with feed for every animal will be installed. She also talked about when the construction of an overpass across Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Street will begin, and announced that a dovecot will reappear on the central gate-tower.

—Ms Akulova, you were officially appointed as the director of the Moscow Zoo on 1 October after working in its administration since 2013. What are your immediate plans for its development? What changes do you intend to make?

I want to make the zoo one of the world’s foremost educational and nature protection centres. We have restarted endangered species rescue programmes that had been shelved in their time.

We will re-launch reproduction programmes for bustards – the largest flying birds on earth – Menzbier’s marmots – the smallest marmots in the world (in the wild, they occur only in the west of Tien Shan – mos.ru) – and the fish owl – a little-studied bird, which is on the verge of extinction.

We have never had Menzbier’s marmots and fish owls before

The Moscow Zoo has several bustards, and we need only to resume their suspended study, and exchange birds with other zoos in Russia and other countries for mating and reproduction. As for Menzbier’s marmots and fish owls, we will acquire them for the first time. No zoo has ever had Menzbier’s marmots before. They and a fish owl will not merely enrich our animal collection; we will also help them to have healthy offspring.

We are also continuing research and rescue programmes for Far Eastern leopards and Amur tigers. Our zoo has several such felines.

 

All rare animal research and conservation programmes are arranged according to a single pattern: zoologists observe animal behaviour, monitor their health, conduct tests and exchange information. Our main goal is to obtain healthy offspring that will also breed and reproduce. That is how zoos are working worldwide to restore rare and endangered populations.

We want to obtain pink pigeons, which live on Mauritius Island in the wild, and an aye-aye – an amazing animal

—So the choice of new species for the zoo depends on animal protection and conservation programmes. Does this mean that you will have more rare and endangered species?

—Yes, we will certainly revise our approach to zoo replenishment in favour of rare and endangered species that have never before appeared in Moscow. We will study and observe them to see what we can do to ensure their reproduction and thereby restore their population eventually.

Apart from the animals I have mentioned, we want to obtain pink pigeons, which live on Mauritius Island in the wild, and an aye-aye – an amazing animal. It is a fluffy black-and-brown kind of lemur with a long tail and thin, tapered long-clawed fingers. These nocturnal animals often get out in the daytime to bask in the sun and disappear the instant they see they are being watched. There are no more than fifty aye-ayes in zoos all over the world.

We intend to get the aye-ayes and pink pigeons from the Durrell Wildlife Park (celebrated author and naturalist Gerald Durrell established the Jersey Island park in 1959 – mos.ru). Talks are being held, and the Durrell experts have given us preliminary consent. We have also made an agreement with them to obtain several species of bare-faced marmosets.

As for the earliest replenishment, we expect a diana monkey to arrive before the year’s end to mate with our own diana. We will also have a new jungle cat

We will re-arrange the zoo not only for public entertainment but also to conserve animals on the verge of extinction, who cannot survive without human help and outside zoos. Despite that, we will certainly always keep well-known animals who attract visitors: bears, wolves, foxes, giraffes and others.

—Will the zoo have more information stands and educational posters?

—We are working on a number of educational stands and other aides as part of an ambitious independent project, scheduled to launch next year. There will be lots of information, aimed at shaping responsible attitudes to wildlife preservation. When I hear zoo keepers in other cities complain that visitors ignore the rules and display consumerist attitudes to animals, I say: “Stop complaining, do something! Instruct your visitors, tell them what they should and should not do and equip the place properly!”

We in Moscow have always had problems with visitors feeding animals. Visitors would come with a stock of cakes for the ducks. This all stopped after we installed three slot machines selling proper fowl feed. And do you know what? Ducks were reluctant to eat the same feed when it was given by keepers, but when visitors offer it and wild pigeons and sparrows flock up and fight for it, ducks also have a fine appetite. That is how improved infrastructure and public information benefit everyone, including zoo residents.

 

—Will more slot machines be installed?

—We want not merely to have more feeding dispensers, but to install a special machine for every animal with proper feed. We want, for instance, to adjust a flower vending machine dispensing leafy branches for Samson, our giraffe. He enjoys getting treats from visitors, though they sometimes bring treats that are not good for him. We have a special worker posted to prevent people from feeding the giraffe. Samson hates this man, and walks around a little despondent. Our zoologists are thinking about whether it is possible to install a dispenser with branches and select feed for every animal to be vended by machines.

The construction of the China pavilion with rare birds, a salamander, pandas and golden monkeys will begin in 2017

—Will the zoo build new pavilions?

—We are working on a 3D model of the China pavilion, which will be built next to the zoo conservatory on the spot of a rather unpopular playground and the staff’s auxiliary garage. All this will be removed to make room for the large earthen pavilion.

The three-tier China pavilion will resemble a pagoda, and the interior will have an exotic atmosphere with Chinese plants, birds and beasts all around. The street will be invisible from it. We will have an aviary on the ground floor. An azure-winged magpie has arrived already and a Tibetan eared pheasant will come soon, and we are choosing other birds. The first floor will accommodate a giant salamander. Another one lives in a similar huge cage in the Prague Zoo. Special lighting allows visitors to see the animal in the daytime and at night alike, and even discern its hideaways, which is impossible in the wild.

The second floor is for our Moscow red pandas and giant pandas, to be brought from China. We are eagerly awaiting them. There are talks underway with the Prague Zoo for golden monkeys.

The pavilion will function as an educational project: not just for visitors to look at something and forget it, but for them to learn about environmental problems, with bamboo forests being cut down in China to make room for tempestuous industrial construction, and pandas dying out apace.

Pavilion construction is rather a simple affair: an earth building does not need a foundation, the construction of which might damage underground utility systems. This means it will not take us long to coordinate the blueprints with the city authorities.

We intend to launch construction in 2017, to be partly funded by the zoo, out of its extra-budgetary purse, and partly by investors.

—Will admission be free?

—If our tentative investors insist on quick profits, we will have to charge at least token sums. This is how zoos do it all over the world: they charge extra for admission to especially interesting animals and safari parks.

It is better to watch monkeys in their winter house than in the summer one: they are closer to visitors. Benches appeared in the monkey house after improvements, so you can take a seat and admire the animals for as long as you like

—What did this year’s repairs change in the monkey house?

—The monkey house has already opened. It has changed inside and outside alike. Jungles are painted now on the outer walls, with portraits of our most endearing animals: Ama the gorilla and Chap the orangutang. The interior also has been made more beautiful. Our experts have created interesting infographics about monkeys. It is better to watch monkeys in their winter house than in the summer one: they are closer to visitors. Benches appeared in the monkey house after improvements, so you can take a seat and admire the animals for as long as you like.

 

We will continue “warm excursions,” which we began last winter, for a tour of all pavilions with tropical animals: giraffes, zebras, apes, birds and butterflies, and certainly our monkeys.

The dovecot will be moved to its old spot on the central gate-tower. Our pigeons will fly free around Moscow and come back to the zoo

—How much has been done for zoo reconstruction?

—We finished another stage last year with sewer, water duct, drainage and heating network repairs. New fire safety devices and video monitoring cameras were installed in all pavilions and all around the outdoor premises. The outer fence was repaired all along the zoo. We made new ramps, cleaned the old pond and upgraded the lighting.

Now we will improve the pedestrian overpass across Bolshaya Gruzinskaya Street. It is 2.5 metres wide: a perfect bottleneck in summer, with up to 70,000 visitors a day. Now it will be widened to 14.5 metres, and stairs will be replaced with ramps heated in the cold season. We have obtained official approval of the layout and are working on the architectural design to start construction in spring.

The children’s zoo will also be improved quite soon, within the next year. Now we are thinking about how to remove the animals and the staff with the smallest possible trouble. The children’s zoo will receive new cages and information boards, a free lecture room and two petting zoo areas, where kids can interact with animals. The upgraded children’s zoo will host school biology classes, also free of charge.

—You say the children’s zoo animals and personnel will have to move for the reconstruction. Where will they go?

—We have three land plots: the Moscow Zoo itself, which is 21 hectares, a nursery near Volokolamsk, of 190 hectares, where we breed and study endangered species caught in the wild, and a branch in Veliky Ustyug.

We will move some animals to the oldest part of the zoo, where a small petting zoo area will be created, and others will go to the nursery. The dovecot will be moved to its old spot on the central gate-tower, where it was before the children’s zoo was established. Our pigeons will fly free about Moscow and come back to the zoo. I think Muscovites will like it. All our employees will retain their jobs working in Moscow or the nursery.

—Have you launched the zoo enlargement project, which envisages incorporating the Elk Islet (Losiny Ostrov) park? What will you make there?

— This is our joint project with Moscow’s Department of Environmental Management and Protection. Sick or injured animals and birds are often brought to the zoo. We accept and help them all, though we shouldn’t, with no quarantine premises. Now, Elk Island (Losiny Ostrov) will host a rehabilitation centre, from which our patients will be released into the wild after they are nursed back to health. These will be animals from Central Russia, not exotic creatures, certainly.

The park will host workshops for Moscow veterinary students, public lectures, demonstrations, and a volunteer club. This is a promising project, and I hope it will find support.

Video cameras will appear in every cage within twelve months, with round-the-clock broadcasts on the Moscow Zoo website

—Will zoo equipment be upgraded?

—Yes, and significantly. A mobile app, to appear shortly after the New Year, will offer an audio guide recording by Nikolai Drozdov [prominent zoologist and famous TV anchor – Tr.], an augmented reality function with the opportunity to photograph three-dimensional animal models and an interactive map of the zoo to select itineraries and book tickets and excursions.

Video cameras will appear in every cage within twelve months, with round-the-clock broadcasts on the Moscow Zoo website. We will introduce SMS payments from our animals’ guardians quite soon. Everyone who wishes can join the guardianship programme and make SMS donations.

 

It is the cheapest to keep small rodents, while predatory birds and beasts cost the most. It costs 9,000 roubles a day to feed a leopard, while an elephant suffices with a million roubles a year

—How many animal guardians do you have?

—We have made 90 guardian contracts this year. All told, slightly more than 120 animals have guardians: companies or private persons. There are very popular animals among their wards; suffice to mention Samson the giraffe, several raccoons and a snowy owl.

Donations are calculated based on the cost of daily feed and part of the upkeep. It is the cheapest to keep small rodents, while predatory birds and beasts cost the most. It takes 9,000 roubles a day to feed a leopard, while an elephant suffices with a million roubles a year. As for a sand shrew or other small rodent, even a schoolchild could afford it.

Guardians are entitled to many privileges, particularly an admission card with which the guardian can visit the zoo free with an adult companion, and the right to install a plaque with his or her name on the cage. They regularly receive photos of the animals, can visit professional events and receive reports on how their ward is doing.

We will have no days-off during the New Year holidays. We have drawn a tight exhibition schedule for next year. One exhibition will display bats

—Is the number of visitors growing? What affects this?

—We had roughly 2.5 million visitors from 1 January through 1 September: 1.5 million more than in the same period of last year. I think this was thanks to our altered schedule: Mondays are no longer days-off, as of July. The zoo has also become more attractive, with a choice of educational programmes, festivals and shows. We are continuing in the same vein.

All people with surnames derived from insect names are entitled to half-price tickets throughout November, the month when Father Frost comes to the zoo from Veliky Ustyug to start on his New Year tour of Russia from Moscow, following a fete he will preside over on 24 November. We will have no days-off during the New Year holidays.

We have drawn a tight exhibition schedule for next year. One exhibition will display bats. I am not sure we will sell discounted tickets to people with similar names, as with the insect event. We will try to invent some new treat for Muscovites and tourists.