How Hong Kong’s Ocean Park keeps the bamboo farm-fresh for picky pandas

Special growing and transport arrangements keep park’s prize attractions satisfied, but campaigners say that doesn’t make up for the strains of captivity

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2017, 7:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 February, 2017, 10:08am

Ocean Park’s giant pandas are not only among the park’s most popular attractions; they are also well pampered residents, with a sophisticated feeding regime to satisfy their fussy eating habits.

Matthias Li Sing-chung, the park’s chief executive, told the Post the theme park had put a lot of effort into taking care of its animals.

“Raising animals is very costly as they need round-the-clock care from our veterinary team,” he said. “They also eat the most expensive food.”

For example, he said, the park’s dolphins and sea lions are fed with high-quality frozen fish imported from the US.

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“For pandas, their feeding cost is especially high because they are fussy eaters. You need to provide a variety of bamboo leaves and shoots of different species for them to choose every day,” he said. “The food itself is not expensive, but the process of growing and transporting the bamboo plants is complicated and costly.”

Li set up two farms in Guangdong to ensure strict enforcement of growing different types of bamboo according to the pandas’ tastes. “We need to hire experts to grow the plants and manage the farms, so the costs are high,” he said.

To ensure freshness, the crops need to be transported by train to Ocean Park at least twice weekly.

Ocean Park did not provide a breakdown of the pandas’ feeding expenses, but a source said feeding them cost several millions of dollars a year.

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The park’s purpose-built habitat houses three rare giant pandas – An An, Ying Ying and Le Le – as well as red pandas. The world’s oldest giant panda in captivity, Jia Jia, died last year at Ocean Park, aged 38.

Despite the park’s care for the animals, wildlife activists have criticised it for capturing animals in the wild and using them for performances, which they say is not good for their well-being.

As of June 30, 2016, Ocean Park had close to 11,000 animals, cared for by an animal team of more than 200 workers.

But Li said Ocean Park believed in a different philosophy about upholding animals’ welfare, and helping people take an interest in conservation.

“At Ocean Park, animals can serve as ambassadors for the promotion of wildlife conservation and welfare,” he said.

“After all, not many people have the opportunity to see these animals in the wild. Seeing them in person can raise the public’s interest in animal conservation.”

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Ocean Park is also accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to ensure it meets international standards of animal care, veterinary programmes, conservation, and safety. It is the only AZA-accredited animal facility outside North America.

Dr Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director for welfare services at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said the standard of care that animals get at Ocean Park was undeniably high. But she said holding the animals in captivity at all would compromise their welfare.

“The fundamental question is should they be in that situation at all,” she said.

“We at the SPCA have a position that we don’t like animals being kept in circuses or menageries for display.”

“Just keeping them in such an environment is quite detrimental. You need to do a lot of things in trying to negate the problems that arise from the stresses of being kept in that type of environment which in no way can match their natural habitat,” she added.

She suggested Ocean Park reduce its collection of animals and focus more on its human-based activities.