11 July 2024

Bua Noi, Thailand’s last gorilla, is ironically attracting big crowds after an account of her life spent caged in a Bangkok department store made domestic and international headlines.

International organizations including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and Free The Wild have joined the call for Bua Noi’s release, but the owner – Pata Zoo, a private menagerie in Pata Pinklao Department Store – insists the gorilla must stay put for her own safety.

“We have rejected plans to relocate her out of concern that she may not be able to adjust to new surroundings,” the zoo said in a statement. “She has been here for more than 30 years.”

Bua Noi’s origins

Bought from Germany for 3 million baht in 1992, Bua Noi (Little Lotus) arrived in Thailand when she was just three. She was reportedly acquired to mate with a male gorilla that had been living in the zoo since 1983.

However, the two never mated due to a big age difference, and eventually the male died of old age, leaving Bua Noi as the only gorilla in Thailand.

The department-store zoo was allowed to keep Bua Noi because she was bought before Thailand ratified the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and introduced a ban on wildlife trade.

Pata Zoo also keeps many other captive animals on display at the department store from 11am to 6pm daily, charging an entry fee of 80 baht for adults and 50 baht for children.

Concern over living conditions

While critics including Natural Resources and Environment Varawut Silpa-archa say Bua Noi deserves better, Pata Zoo claims the gorilla has always been properly cared for.

“We have given Bua Noi the best care,” the zoo said in response to recent criticism.

The zoo’s management claims it is running at a loss but has never been tempted to sell the gorilla for profit. Bua Noi, a star attraction for visitors to the zoo, continues to live confined in an enclosure measuring 10 meters wide by 20 meters long.

The management said the gorilla receives 5 kilograms of food per day.

“I love her like my own child,” said her keeper Sompong Budda, who has looked after the gorilla for years.

Pata Zoo also says it has evacuation plans in place in case of emergency: Bua Noi would be moved from the top floor of the department store via the fireman’s elevator.

Sompong dismissed concerns that the gorilla was depressed, saying Bua Noi’s lethargy could be explained by the fact she was already in her 50s in human years.

Better life overseas?

Earlier this month, Varawut’s secretary Thaneadpon Thanaboonyawat unveiled plans to raise funds to have the gorilla removed from the department store and sent back to Germany.

“We have received many complaints over the years about Bua Noi’s plight,” Thaneadpon said. “We think it will probably be better to send her back to Germany so she can be around other members of her species rather than dying alone in her cage.”

Thaneadpon said Bua Noi could not be returned to the wild as she would find it too difficult to adjust.

Though Thaneadpon suggested public fundraisers could be organized to buy Bua Noi from the zoo for 30 million baht, the zoo has said it will not sell the primate.

Asked about the zoo management’s refusal to release or move the gorilla, Varawut said: “Talks between the zoo and our ministry began even before I became minister. So, I won’t comment on this.”

Bua Noi’s plight first came to the world’s attention when Australian national Jody Broad launched the “Save Gorilla Little Lotus” campaign on change.org some nine years ago. Her hope was to get at least 150,000 the petition to free the gorilla. However, her campaign had only received 117,732 signatures as of press time.

Free The Wild is also publicizing Bua Noi’s plight on its website, pointing out that she should not be kept inside a glass and steel cage on the top floor of a department store in Bangkok.

“To support us on our mission to release Bua Noi and her fellow captives, please donate to Free The Wild today through the ‘Donate Now’ link,” the organization said. “Every penny helps towards their freedom and facilitates their travel, medicines and long-term care.”

By Thai PBS World