Sandra the Orangutan. Photo via Daily Mirror

When Buenos Aires zoo was closed down last year after a 140 year stint, it was on the understanding that the resident animals would be moved to more suitable environments. After all, Plaza Italia is not the leafy suburb it was in 1875, and it was decided that the modern reality of noisy, packed avenues and fast-moving vehicles was not an ideal setting for around 1500 animals.

Almost a year later and there have been some changes – the zoo has been transformed into an Eco-park and now lets in around 2000 visitors a day instead of 10,000. But as for the animals themselves, many still remain caged in the zoo, in a claustrophobic kind of limbo. Admittedly, some condors were released, and 360 animals sent to other institutions were rescued, but not one animal has been transferred to another institution, such as a sanctuary, as previously planned.

Photo via Natacha Pisarenko
Photo via Natacha Pisarenko

So why the slow progress? Well according to City Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta, it was always known that the process would take some time.  The mayor, who called the animals a “treasure” which couldn’t continue to live surrounded by so much noise and contamination, expressed his caution towards speeding up the process in case it presented a risk to the animals. Experts agree that some animals who have grown accustomed to life inside a zoo may die if transferred.

The matter is also more complex than previously expected. It required the passing of a law setting out quality standards and authorizing the transferal of the animals. Recently, a conservation manager was contracted to determine which animals could be part of the conservation project. But the government still have not made explicit which and how many animals will be able to be transferred, nor who is willing to accept them.

Photo via Natacha Pisarenko
Photo via Natacha Pisarenko

Larreta, along with Modernization, Innovation and Technology Minister Andy Freire put together a plan to redesign the space, including expanding the green areas from 10.9 hectares to 13.5. They will also introduce controlled zones, in place of cages, which make use of natural borders such as stones and ditches, to mark off an animal’s space from another with whom it cannot share.

They released a General Plan for the Transformation of the Ecoparque, on Tuesday, which reiterates their objective to promote environmental education and sustainability, with the overall message being one of “care for nature and the animals.” This involves expanding green spaces, dividing the park into 5 areas each with a different focus: conservation and eco-regions; investigation and education; art and culture; recreation and sustainable consumption, and a central connecting area.

But not everyone is satisfied with the government’s approach. Firstly, many ecologists argue that the animals are being kept in inhumane conditions – in enclosed areas and habitats that need renovating. While “the well-being of all animals in the park” is one of the plan’s 3 central objectives, many argue that the government’s plans do not detail how exactly they will address this issue.

On April 28, a group of ecologists and vets released a letter urging the government to make clear which animals would stay permanently inside the zoo/park and under what conditions. They criticised the focus of the current plans, arguing that the only changes made since the closing of the zoo are to “rename it, increase the entrance fee, the closing off of animal habitats to the public and increasing the number of staff. But none of this means better conditions for the animals.”

The plans are accused of being focused on the long term, with little attention to how the animals will be dealt with immediately.