The Disturbing State of Indonesia’s ‘Zoo of Death’

The Surabaya Zoo’s last remaining giraffe died recently with a 40-lb. (18 kg) wad of plastic in its stomach. The death has brought the decrepit conditions of the Indonesian zoo to the world's attention

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Juni Kriswanto / AFP / Getty Images

Personnel tend to a 30-year-old ailing giraffe at the zoo in Surabaya, Indonesia, on March 1, 2012. It died that evening

The Surabaya Zoo in Indonesia boasts the most diverse collection of animals found at any zoo in Southeast Asia. From endangered Sumatran tigers and orangutans to Komodo dragons and a broad array of birds, Surabaya’s magnificent menagerie would be something to behold. That is, if the animals weren’t living in squalor.

Despite the fact that the zoo is popular with locals and visitors and responsible for the care of up to 4,000 animals, many of which are endangered, the Surabaya Zoo has become infamous for its appalling conditions and the inhumane treatment of its inhabitants. According to a recent article by Trisnadi Marjan of the Associated Press, approximately 15 animals at the zoo die every month — a figure that has actually decreased from two years ago — suffering from preventable diseases, hunger, lack of exercise and overcrowding.

Two weeks ago, the zoo’s last remaining giraffe, 30-year-old Kliwon, died with a 40-lb. (18 kg) wad of plastic sitting in its stomach. For years, the animal had been eating whatever it could find, which was mostly trash thrown in its enclosure by zoo visitors.

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While deaths like that of Kliwon are not uncommon at Surabaya — the Jakarta Globe even went as far as to call it the “zoo of death” in 2010 — it has prompted public criticism of the zoo and the Indonesian government for doing little to care for the welfare of the animals.

Tony Sumampauw, the zoo’s government-appointed interim director, told the Associated Press that nothing short of a “total renovation” is needed to turn around conditions at the Surabaya Zoo, and that requires the government’s help. With entry fees at $2 per person and breeding running rampant, the zoo doesn’t have nearly enough money to care for its growing number of creatures. If something isn’t done quickly, Sumampauw predicts that the zoo will not have any animals left in as little as three years.

In 2010, Indonesia’s Ministry of Forestry upended the zoo’s management and placed the zoo under the care of Sumampauw and his team after a string of animal deaths, including that of a Sumatran tiger, an African lion, a wallaby, a Komodo dragon, a babirusa cub, a Bawean deer, a crocodile and several birds, according to the Jakarta Globe. If that weren’t enough, three Komodos also went missing around that time, most likely sold into the exotic-pet trade — a problem that has consistently plagued Indonesian zoos.

(MORE: When Zoos Cut Budgets, No Species Is Safe)

Since then, Surabaya’s municipal government and the Ministry of Forestry have argued about how to handle the zoo’s deteriorating conditions. Darori, the director general of forest protection and nature conservation at the Forestry Ministry, told the Jakarta Globe that the city’s government had refused to elect a permanent management team, wanting instead to set up a municipal-owned body to manage the zoo. The park has only remained open, Darori claims, because of local demand.

“We respect their decision to keep the zoo open, but this is just too weird,” Darori told the Jakarta Globe, pointing out that it would cost approximately $5.5 million to fund the zoo and improve the animals’ living conditions. “If they don’t want the animals, there are plenty of other zoos waiting in line, including in Jakarta and Singapore.”

For now, Sumampauw will continue to act as the zoo’s caretaker, hoping that the government will find a way to act quickly before more animals needlessly perish.

PHOTOS: TIME’s Best of 2011: Animals in Peril

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