On the foothills of The Peak, Hong Kong Island, a caged orangutan stares blankly at a group of school children. Its enclosure, which gives it just enough space to swing limply from one side to the other, has been its home for as long as it can remember.

Hong Kong is famous for many of its legendary sites, but not its Zoological and Botanical Gardens. That is probably a good thing. Tucked away in a green stretch of land behind heady bar strip, Lan Kwai Fong, it is part of a Colonial era site that’s over 100 years old. And it has been quietly keeping rare animals in outdated and cramped conditions for more than 20 years.

Among them is a family of orangutans who have been bred in house as part of a controversial so-called conservation program that has raised the ire of local animal rights groups and activists. They argue that the zoo’s infrastructure is inappropriate for such large and intelligent animals and that keeping them in those conditions is an act of cruelty.

“It’s like a menagerie from the 19th century,” says a veterinary surgeon at Hong Kong’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In a report compiling suggestions and research from NGOs two years ago, numerous complaints were made about enclosures being sparsely furnished and old-fashioned. Since then, little has changed.

“Those primates are not in a good condition,” said renowned environmentalist Jane Goodall on a visit to Hong Kong. NGO Animals Asia has long recommended the site phase out its animal enclosures altogether. They are opposed to zoos in general and believe them to be antiquated phenomena.

With more than 40 species of animals, among them are several rare primates including the rare golden tamarin which hails from South America, the zoo markets itself as a reputable pro-conservation site that exists to add value to the lives of city dwellers by educating them on rare and endangered species.

Run by the government’s Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the zoo’s spokespeople continue to justify its existence despite mounting criticism. They argue that school children reap the instructional rewards of seeing exotic animals in the flesh such that they develop emotional attachments to the natural world that compel them to care about the environment.

The debate around the existence of Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Garden comes at a time of shifting values towards animal rights in the city and across Asia.

Hong Kong is also home to a marine park that is regularly canvassed by placard-brandishing activists owing to its dolphin collection. As highly intelligent explorers, dolphins are thought to be particularly inappropriate creatures to keep in confined spaces.

These activists argue that the venue is behind the times, and also express concern at the rising number of marine parks and zoo facilities across China being built to accommodate the whims of the increasingly well-heeled Chinese.

Those opposing the parks are part of a growing movement campaigning improve animal welfare standards. They tend to belong to the generations whose rising affluence enabled them to keep animals of their own.

As such, they developed an attachment to them and an awareness of their emotional needs that eluded the generations preceding them whose priority had to be their own survival.

Editor: Edward White