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Archive for the ‘parks and zoos’ Category

Asia’s Zoos

IMG_4274Much like Singapore, whose name “Singapura” meant “Lion City” after a Sumatran prince saw a lion-like creature upon landing on its shores, Surabaya is also a place that got its name in reference to some animal. For Surabaya, it’s actually two – “Sura” from “shark” and “buwaya”, the crocodile. Some ancient Javanese myth had these two creatures fighting over the territory, so the story goes. As such, a giant sculpture of a shark and a crocodile in deadly combat grace the entrance of one of Asia’s biggest, and oldest zoos located in Eastern Java.

I had always made it a point to put local zoos on my list of tourist attractions to visit during my travels abroad. I already got to visit the Singapore Zoo and Night Safari in July 2006 after attending a Legal Pluralism conference. In August 2006, I went on a month-long Applied Study Program on Sexual Diversity in Indonesia. While my first time in Java in June 2006 mainly kept me in the Western area of Jakarta and Depok, this 28-day training would bring me to Surabaya which was in East Java. Besides being known as a popular international port area and playing a significant role in the independence of Indonesia from the Dutch, Surabaya also had the honor of having a historically significant zoo.

Established back when the European Colonials still lorded over much of Asia, it was meant to have the most extensive collection of animals in Indonesia. Because it is already old, some of the cages and animal’s living spaces still seemed cramped compared to most modern-day zoos. But the actual area the zoo covered was one of the largest I’ve ever seen and my legs ached from walking the distance from one enclosure to another.

Surabaya Zoo had the usual “large” animals – elephants, giraffes, zebras, camels, ostriches, a couple of lions, some tigers, a cheetah, Malaysian Sun Bears, as well as some gorillas and monkeys. But there were at least two creatures I needed to see because they were indigenous to Indonesia; and that was the orangutan from Borneo, and the Komodo Dragon from Papua.

Orangutans were said to be even smarter than gorillas and could communicate with humans better. They had facial expressions and their hands can grasp you like a real person. But the adult orangutan I saw looked so depressed and turned away as we approached to view it. Komodo Dragons, on the other hand, are notorious “meat-eaters” that will not spare humans if given the chance. Their bites are lethal because their saliva is full of bacteria that can cause infections on a wound. If you don’t get eaten right away by a “pack” of dragons, you can probably walk away but you won’t have much time left. The Komodo Dragon is a “patient” predator and will wait until you get so weak, you can’t fight it off anymore as it begins to feast on your flesh.

A few years later, after having visited our own Avilon Zoo in Rizal, I would say it was the only local zoo that could rival its foreign counterparts both in size and its menagerie of animals. It was only in Avilon that I got to see the Malaysian tapir, a capybara, an Australian wallaby, a meerkat, a gibbon, and an Indonesian fresh-water crocodile with a very narrow snout.

Like all modern zoos, it considered bigger spaces for the animals. Instead of steel bars and wire fences all the time, deep moats were built around their living areas to separate the animals from the viewing public. At least, this gives the animals a less “claustrophobic” environment. There are also more of those “petting zoo” features which Manila Zoo also offers. At the ponds, you can throw the “giant” Amazon river fishes some raw chicken heads and watch them scramble for the food. You can also feed the gibbons and orangutans by throwing them a few bananas over the moat. You can have a hawk and a falcon perch on you. You can hold the boas and pythons and have your picture taken. You can even have a photo with a “smiling” orangutan named “Trixie”.

For the long drive outside Metro Manila via the San Mateo national road, Avilon Zoo is worth the trip, even with the rather “pricey” entrance fee. For kids who have seen Manila Zoo, the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife, and even the Malabon Zoo, Avilon would be quite a treat.

Speaking of “petting zoos” and safaris, the Philippines already has many to boast about such as Subic’s (Zoobic) safari. Yet it is ironic that I saw my first safari in another country, particularly the Night Safari in Singapore. After a women’s rights follow-up training in Bandung in 2007, my good friend and officemate, Atty. Dash and I decided to stay awhile in Indonesia and do a little more sight-seeing. Through her distant relative based in Jakarta, we got to visit Bogor’s famous safari.

Bogor is just outside Jakarta, and like Bandung, it’s slightly elevated location gives it a rather cool atmosphere much like Tagaytay. Bogor’s highly popular safari allows you to bring your own vehicles to the track, and you can get close enough to actually feed the animals from your car windows. But given the dirt roads you must traverse, it is advisable that you bring a four-wheel drive. You can also purchase some fruits and vegetables from the vendors lining the road right before the entrance. Hawking their wares, they remind you that you need something to feed the animals with.

It’s quite amazing seeing these animals approach the vehicles and “demand” to be fed. The singular experience of actually having wild animals such as zebras, impalas and gazelles eat “right off your hand” is incomparable. Sometimes they even continue following the cars to ask for food. However, at the enclosure for the “big cats”, we were advised to keep our windows closed and not get out of our vehicles. A gamekeeper armed with a tranquilizer gun is on stand-by and sat in his own jeep a few feet from the animals. An adult tiger cut in front of our vehicle, simply taking its time in crossing the road, as lions lounge away at their treehouse. Seeing them up close like this was indeed a little scary considering their size and strength. Bogor will always be my “ultimate” safari experience!

At my age, I am still quite fascinated by zoos and the animals one can see there. Wherever I go, zoos and safaris will always be on my itinerary. That’s why I can never forgive myself for missing out on the Giant Panda Bear at the Beijing Zoo in May 2007. Oh well…maybe next time.

Quezon City’s Hidden Treasures

IMG_0929Lately, I’ve rediscovered my penchant for the outdoors. First, it was just because of my need for exercise and the close proximity of the La Mesa Ecopark to where I now live. The clean air had been good for my lungs and I haven’t been having asthma attacks in quiet a while. All the greenery also reminded me of the University of the Philippines campuses where I studied – both in Los Banos and Diliman, where I used to enjoy long walks whether alone or with company.

Except for those college years in UPLB, I have lived in Quezon City for most of my life. It’s only now that I realized how fortunate I was to be living in Quezon City. Besides being good for exercise, QC parks can also be cheap alternatives for other recreational activities, especially these days when “hanging out at the mall” can be very expensive. Movie theater admission fees are now worth five times what they used to cost, mere “window-shopping” eventually makes you buy something anyway, and to get seats to rest your feet, you need to eat something at a restaurant or even just the food court. For simple economic considerations, “free” entertainment seems the better option.

In UP, you can jog, walk your dog, or cycle around the Sunken Garden or track and field oval provided you bring your own equipment. There are also a lot of spaces for some amateur badminton, Frisbee throwing or other ball games in the area behind the Oblation and the Lagoon. At the QC Circle, there are bikes for rent – for adults or kids, singles or with a sidecar provision for passengers. There used to be a roller skating rink too, a few decades ago. Nowadays, teenagers still bring along their in-line skates, skateboards and wave boards there but are no longer restricted to certain areas.

For residents of nearby Kamias, UP and Teacher’s Village, QC Circle boasts of the daily “free” aerobics sessions at its center area near the Quezon Memorial itself. I even heard the latest fitness program includes the “sponsored” ballroom dancing sessions for senior citizens at the different pavilions. Owing to Charito Planas’ initiatives and the QC local government’s support, QC Circle’s “attractions” have also expanded to tiangges, garden shows and various restaurants. Of course, the open areas are perfect for family picnics. Kids can run around and play, while adults can just sit or lie around in the grass. This many UP alumni still do with their families at the Diliman campus, although in QC Circle, there are even modern and safe playgrounds now.

If you are willing to pay a little extra for entrance fees, QC’s most recent development is the “Circle of Fun” amusement center. With the closure of Cubao’s famed “Fiesta Carnival” a few years ago, today’s QC kids have this alternative for their childhood memories. Opened just a few months ago, Circle of Fun has the same reasonably-priced rides and “fun houses” Fiesta Carnival used to boast about. However, the caterpillar rides of my youth have since given way to faster and “cooler” roller coaster rides which can turn upside-down, the spinning cup-and-saucer ride is now more of a complex “octopus” ride, while the “swinging” Ship-Ahoy or Crazy Galleon ride just became bigger and even “crazier”.

Meanwhile, also at the Elliptical Road is the Ninoy Aquino Parks and Wildlife, located between North Avenue and East Avenue, where it has two entrances. The black sun bear of my childhood named “Bruno” is no longer there; neither are the live pawikans or large sea turtles at the center building and the “monkey-eating” eagles (now known as the Philippine eagle) housed at the giant aviary. Renamed “Ninoy Aquino” Parks and Wildlife in the late 80s, it is now home to rescued exotic animals under the care of the DENR’s protected wildlife bureau. Some are neglected “pets” while some are endangered species being smuggled by opportunistic traders.

Besides various sea eagles, parakeets, owls or kuwagos, there are migrating “swamp” birds like herons, storks and egrets called “tiklings”. There are also snakes in various shapes and sizes, and our unique salt-water and fresh-water crocodiles. Occasionally, there are mammals like our local monkeys, deers, and wild boars. Recently, there was a local relative of the squirrel and the civet cat, also a musang and an alamid. And like the La Mesa Ecopark, our indigenous plants and trees there are named and marked, such that walking around is like a biology class, only more fun. They have also expanded the man-made lake, complete with cement benches and a viewing “dock”. It’s now more of a lagoon, but I hear fishing is allowed there.

On the other hand, La Mesa Ecopark is still by far the largest park in QC and the most “modern” in its attractions. It’s main objective is not just preserving the site as a watershed and natural reserve, but also to generate environmental awareness and responsibility among Filipinos, especially Metro Manila residents. It’s main hall or reception area is an Ecocenter where organic products are sold and waste management lectures are given. Just in front of it, beside the Super Ferry-sponsored boating area, is a vermiculture farm and herb garden. Further down, which is actually the entrance to the Ecopark proper, are indigenous trees like narra, acacia, and apitong which usually populating watershed areas for their big roots and expansive foliage. There are also the common fruit-bearing trees like pomelo or suha, coconut, mango and santol trees, interspersed with sturdy mahogany and the colorful “fire tree”. “Bottom-growers” like ferns and grasses also abound, but here each flora and fauna has a purpose, even the birds, bees and butterflies.

What makes the Ecopark more exciting is the additional features it has. Entrepreneurs have been allowed to sponsor the paintball, zipline and wall-climbing activities which private companies utilize as part of their Team-building. Meanwhile, below the long staircase-viewing deck of the dam itself is a fishing area. The old pool is now for pre-arranged functions only, but two new pools are located at the Aquacenter. One is designed to appear like an infinity pool, where its “trimmed” gutters make it safer for kids along with its “invisible” barriers beneath the water line. The other pool is designed for swimming laps and is arranged in lanes, so here is where most of the adults swim. There is also some horseback-riding now along the old fitness trail near the orchidarium, and an ampitheater has been built for other open air events. Of course, the old pavilions are still being rented out for private functions, while there are now some blind masseurs at a tent near the Rent-a-Bike and food stalls area. Although some families still bring their own food for picnics, there are available food items sold at the handful of kiosks dotting the Ecopark proper, including an organic and health food outlet.

For me, besides the regular exercise, I have taken the opportunity to practice some amateur photography as well. I’ve always been partial to taking “nature” photos, and after some striking views of the trees and waterways, animals have proven to be quite interesting subjects too.

So indulge me, as I mix together a few things that presently make my life more bearable – nature-tripping, writing and basic photography.