Zoo and Aquarium Industry in China

Impacts of the Rising Zoo and Aquarium Industry in China | Daxue Consulting

The Zoos and Aquariums industry in China includes operators that preserve and exhibit land or aquatic animals for conservation, academic purposes, display, and entertainments. Zoos, wildlife parks, and aquariums in China have flourished in recent years among rising demand for theme parks. As Chinese consumers found themselves with more available disposable income, they took more domestic trips to such industry establishments. By 2020, China’s theme parks are projected to welcome 330 million visitors a year. China’s wildlife and marine-specific parks will receive a strong segment of these visitors.

The domestic Tourism Market in China

In 2017, the domestic tourism market in China hosted five billion visitors, and a significant number of them opted to visit marine and wildlife parks. For example, more than 31,000 tourists visited the Qingdao Haichang Polar Ocean World in 2017, up 64% from the year before. Chimelong Ocean Kingdom saw a 40% increase in attendance between 2014 and 2016. Larger facilities such as the Beijing Zoo can see up to 6 million visitors per year.

Baidu search index: Zoos in China

Users on Chinese search engine Baidu search for “zoo” (动物园) an average of 1840 times per day. Searches spike during national holidays such as the spring festival, golden week, or May 1st. Average daily searches have increased by 21% since 2011.

Zoos in China
[Source: Baidu search index “Zoos in China”]

Baidu search index: Aquariums in China

“Aquarium” is a less popular search term on Baidu than “zoo.” Baidu users search for “aquarium” (水族馆) an average of 582 times per day. Search frequency has increased by 13% since 2011.

Aquariums in China
[Source: Baidu search index “Aquariums in China”]

Increasing searches on Baidu for zoos and aquariums in China reflect a growing consumer interest in this type of theme park, especially during holidays and periods of nice weather.

Marine Parks and Aquariums in China

More than 60 marine parks are currently operational in China, ranging from large scale developments to add-ons at larger theme parks. Between 2015 and 2017, ocean theme parks operating throughout China experienced a 20% hike in attendance. There are more than 36 large-scale projects set to launch in the next two years.

Looking beyond domestic projects, park operators like Haichang Ocean Park Holdings plan to capitalize on the industry trend and build marine parks along the beltway of countries making up China’s silk road trade initiative. The company is in discussion with several Chinese-owned infrastructure builders to develop three to four ocean parks along the silk road in countries like Bangladesh and Madagascar. Haichang will also embark on an “asset light” strategy of designing and operating resorts for state-backed companies.

Haichang aims to become the world’s largest marine theme park operator following the opening of three new projects in Shanghai, Zhengzhou, and Sanya. Their newly-opened Ocean Park in Shanghai is expected to attract at least 3 million visitors per year. The mega theme park, which cost RMB 3 billion to build, covers more than 190,000 square meters and features 12 exhibition halls, 4 interactive experience zones, and 3 cinemas. Customer spending at the ocean park is about 250 RMB per person, including entrance fees and souvenir purchases. Haichang posted net profits of USD 8.83 million in the first half of 2017, up 38.9% from the previous year.

Poaching and animal mistreatment in China’s Marine Parks

The marine park industry’s growth in China comes with a dangerous demand for threatened or endangered aquatic species. There are currently no government regulations or standards regarding animal trade in China, and no government agency has a clear regulatory responsibility over the illegal trade of endangered wildlife. This has created dire animal welfare conditions and a dangerous gray area of immunity for poachers. Lucio Conti, vice-president for marine facilities at Atlantis Sanya, notes worrying that fisherman in coastal cities can often provide interested parties with any aquatic animal they desire, endangered or not.

China is the main driver of the captive marine mammal industry globally. Since 2014, 872 cetaceans have been put into captivity in China to satiate consumer demand for more marine species on exhibit. Endangered species like orcas (killer whales) and beluga whales are common among the marine animals illegally caught and sold. At least 15 Russian orcas were imported to China between 2013 and 2017. As an extremely endangered breed, the capture of any orcas is dangerous for the species – especially because once in captivity, their rate of mortality is extremely high. However, the prospect of high profits will continue to attract the capture of rare marine wildlife, legal or not. While China is not the only country fueling demand for illegally-captured cetaceans, the nation is the world’s largest driver of demand.

Animals at marine parks in China are often the subject of maltreatment including squalid conditions and poor welfare practices. Al Jazeera’s 101 East sent undercover investigators to China’s 15 biggest marine parks and discovered what was described as “widespread neglect and abuse.” At one aquarium, reporters found a freezer full of dolphin carcasses that died from over-working, with their intestines twisted from the leaps and moves they were forced to do in circus shows.

While marine shows and breeding programs in the West are winding down under intense regulation and pressure from animal welfare groups, the practice of marine shows and breeding programs is flourishing in China.

Marine parks in China
[Source: Shutterstock “A live-dolphin show at a marine park in China”]

Many new marine parks in China are run by companies with little or no experience caring for cetaceans. Furthermore, all profit incentives for marine park developers and showrunners are short-term, so the moral and ethical impacts of animal maltreatment are rarely if ever, considered. The few foreign companies that run wildlife and marine parks in China adapt to Chinese standards of animal care.

Zoos and Wildlife Parks in China

Over the last five years, many zoos in China have undertaken modernization projects and built new exhibits. Zoos in China are often more akin to theme parks than scientific outposts. They are frequently run entirely by commercial principles, with little emphasis on conservation and the types of animals on display determined more by wildlife trader inventories than conservation or breeding needs.

Top 5 most famous zoos and wildlife parks as well as aquariums and marine parks in China

The most popular zoos and wildlife parks in China, by number and rating of reviews, are:

  1. Dujiangyan Panda Base, Chengdu;
  2. Chimelong Safari Park, Guangzhou;
  3. Dalian Forest Zoo, Dalian;
  4. Harbin Polarland, Harbin;
  5. Chongqing Zoo, Chongqing.

Top 5 most famous aquariums and marine parks in China.The most popular aquariums and marine parks in China, by number and rating of reviews, are:

  1. Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, Zhuhai;
  2. Ji Di Guan Pole Aquarium, Dalian;
  3. Sun Asia Ocean World and Polar World, Dalian;
  4. Beijing Aquarium, Beijing;
  5. Shanghai Ocean Aquarium, Shanghai.

Mistreatment of Animals in Chinese Wildlife Parks

Despite the Chinese zoo and wildlife park industry’s relatively large size, animal conditions in the parks are atrocious. Some pack animals are kept isolated, while other animals that thrive in lone-wolf situations are forced into proximity with others of their kind. Animals are often kept in tiny cages or at bare, concrete facilities. They are frequently fed the wrong foods or given inaccurate serving sizes, leading to obesity or malnourishment.

Wildlife Parks in China
[Source: Handout “Obese tigers at a zoo in Heilongjiang”]
Chinese Wildlife Parks
[Source: Handout “An emaciated black bear at the Henan zoo”]

Often, animals in Chinese wildlife parks are mistreated in the name of entertainment. At the Siberian Tiger Park in Harbin, visitors can pay to throw live chickens, ducks, and even cows to tigers. At the Shanghai Wildlife Park, staff regularly ride ostriches in races. In 2010 the State Forestry Administration outlawed animal circus acts, but that regulation applies only to state-owned zoos, meaning that performances are still common in wildlife parks.

Chinese zoos
[Source: Buzzfeed]

It is not just wildlife staff guilty of mistreating the captive animals. There is often little signage or supervision of visitor activity, so visitors are allowed to enter the parks without any education of proper etiquette. Tourists regularly throw junk food and trash at animals, and a visitor at the Yunnan Wildlife Park once threw RMB 10,000 into a giraffe enclosure. A tourist at the Zhuyuwan Zoo in Jiangsu pelted kangaroos with stones to get them hopping. A teenage boy at Yangzhou’s Slender West Lake scenic area attacked two black swans and stomped on their eggs. Chinese tourists at the Beijing zoo were caught chasing and manhandling peacocks, even ripping out their tail feathers for souvenirs. An elderly woman at the Dalian Forest Zoo was photographed pulling the hair off a camel and shoving it in her purse. Two Chinese men stole and ate a black swan from Xujiahui Park in Shanghai. For contrast, visitors at zoos in America are discouraged from even yelling at animals or rapping on their cages. Tourists at Chinese animal parks are alarmingly uneducated about how to treat the animals, and lax staff supervision allows the visitors to mistreat the animals.

Animal facilities in China are largely unsupervised due to overlaps between different government agencies. The Ministry of Agriculture oversees aquariums, the State Forestry Bureau is responsible for wildlife parks, and zoos are run by the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development. An animal protection law for China was considered in 2010, but ultimately struck down.

Zoos and aquariums in China vs the United States

The Zoos and Aquariums industry in the US is growing slower than in China, but still growing. The industry grew by 1.5% over the past 5 years to reach a revenue of USD 2 billion in 2018. The market size of the Zoos and Aquariums industry in the US is expected to increase by 2.9% in 2019.

The United States is often considered to have some of the highest animal welfare standards in the world, but laws regarding the display and treatment of wild animals in captivity vary by state. The Animal Welfare Act (AWA) is the primary piece of federal legislating regulating captive wild animals. The 1966 law regards “warm-blooded” animals who are bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially or publicly exhibited. The AWA establishes baseline standards for the care, handling, and transport of animals exhibited in zoos. The 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) is another law used to protect captive wild animals that are listed as threatened or endangered. In several cases, animals held in poor conditions at zoos have been transferred to sanctuaries under the ESA. However, the US has only minimal standards for animal protection, and most state and federal governing agencies do not have the resources to adequately enforce what laws there are. China’s complete lack of animal protection laws is unique on a global scale, but even countries with such laws are not treating their captive animals much better than China is.

The future of the zoo and aquarium industry in China

There are numerous ways to draw in visitors and boost ticket sales without resorting to poaching or abusing animals in the name of entertainment. To stand apart from competitors and draw in visitors looking for a unique experience, some zoos and aquariums in China are building creative new exhibits.

The Guangzhou zoo in 2018 closed its circus performance and launched a VR Zoo with more than 20 devices for visitors to watch the feeding, playing, and breeding of various wild animals. The first phase of construction cost USD 3.1 million, with more investments planned. The exhibit is a massive hit, and on its first day of opening, more than 20,000 people visited the VR section of the zoo.

American company Landmark Entertainment Group plans to roll out in China a series of aquariums with a heavy virtual reality component. Visitors will spend 1/3 of their visit wearing a virtual reality headset, where at the press of a button they can virtually witness their animal of choice swim by, watch animals being fed, or even see all the fish turn to skeletons if they choose.

virtual aquariums
[Source: Landmark Entertainment Group “Mock-up of the Landmark Entertainment virtual aquariums”]

VR exhibits in zoos and aquariums across China fit with the government’s anticipated role of AI in the country. Beijing expects that AI should support China’s economic and social development, with batches of distinctive innovative enterprises and an ecological system of innovation.

Other animal parks in China have created unique exhibits without a VR element. Atlantis Sanya worked hard to combine water park and aquarium elements to entertain visitors in China. They boast many water rides, including a slide that takes riders in a pipe through the shark tank. Visitors can snorkel or scuba dive, feed stingrays and walk on the floor of the shark tank.

At the Lehe Ledu Wildlife Zoo in Chongqing, tourists are caged while the animals roam free. Visitors board caged vehicles that drive slowly through large animal enclosures, occasionally stopping near the animals for tourists to look at and photograph. Raw meat is hung off the sides of the vehicle to encourage animals to come closer. When the park opened in 2015, the attraction was sold out for three months straight. The “reverse zoo” inspired emulations across China, and now the Harbin Tiger Park offers a similar attraction alongside their traditional exhibits.

Chinese animal parks
[Source: Wittyfeed]

Exploding Chinese interest in seeing and learning about aquatic and land animals has fueled a rapid industry growth with dangerous consequences. To meet new consumer demand and fill newly built facilities, poachers are importing endangered species at an alarming rate, and the animals in captivity at Chinese parks are often kept in terrible conditions. Despite a growing number of tourists visiting marine and wildlife parks, the Chinese government has not regulated the zoo and aquarium industry so it can operate responsibly and sustainably.

Author: Alison Bogy

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