A GERMAN zoo has been accused of exploitation after it unveiled plans to put grass-skirted black men in mud huts from tomorrow to show off its elephants and rhinos in their "natural environment".
The zoo, in the southern German city of Augsburg, is promoting the plan in a glossy brochure entitled Discover the Dark Continent, and has put up posters advertising the new attractions.
The "tribesmen" - no-one is exactly sure which they are from, although most of them will be commuting from darkest downtown Munich - will be encouraged to carry out some traditional activities such as African basket-weaving, woodwork and various rituals such as tribal dancing.
According to the brochure, the idea is to let visitors "discover the Dark Continent" with its "genuine exotic ambience".
The human exhibits will be separated from the animals in an area where they can be observed easily by visitors, although the brochure does not make it clear whether the people on display would be in the cages with the animals or in an entirely separate enclosure.
The show is scheduled to go ahead despite attracting criticism from African communities and human rights activists.
Norbert Finzsch, a historian at the University of Cologne, said: "The idea is a direct result of 40 years of German colonialism and 12 years of National Socialism.
"People of colour are still seen as exotic objects, as basically dehumanised entities within the realm of animals."
But Barbara Jantschke, the zoo's director, defended her initiative, saying that a zoo is "exactly the right place to convey an exotic atmosphere" and that one of the organisers is himself "a native African with black skin", which should speak in favour of the project.
Germany's colonial past was a brief and bloody affair involving expeditions ordered by the last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, to emulate the conquests of Britain and Belgium in Africa.
The organisers of the African village project deny that they are trying to turn black people "into human zoo exhibits" for the three-day show.
"We want to show silversmiths at work, artists, village craftsmen in a setting near the animals of Africa so everyone would benefit from the experience," said Dr Jantschke, who yesterday was coming under pressure to ditch the entire concept.
"The African continent is so much more than just savannah and village tribesmen and so much more complex," said Thomas Odamou, a Ghanaian community leader in Bavaria.
"This is stereotypes for the tourists and sends off completely the wrong message, despite their good intentions. I suppose next they will be asking them to put bones through their noses. It's nonsense."
Peggy Piesche, leading the protests on behalf of the Black European Studies department at the Johannes-Gutenberg-University in Mainz, said: "To call this a bad idea is an understatement.
"In this day and age and at a time when African poverty and African advancement is on the lips of everyone from President Bush and Tony Blair to Bob Geldof and rock musicians, we must not allow black people to be exploited in this way."