March 30, 2020
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Death Serum

Poorer by 12 rare tigers, by human error or otherwise, it’s time our zoos are modernised

Death Serum

The death of twelve tigers at the Nandan Kanan Zoological Park near Bhubaneshwar has once again brought the focus back to the appalling conditions in Indian zoos. It also raises questions about the wisdom of breeding animals in captivity, which, more than often, leads to inbreeding. As a result you get the numbers. But these are also animals with a very low immunity, living in an unhealthy environment.

Enough to raise the hackles of any animal lover. "It is a huge tragedy. But I blame it on human error. The zoos in India are ill-equipped and under-funded and the personnel not trained enough," says Belinda Wright, executive director, Wildlife Protection Society of India. The total loss, in purely commercial terms, has been evaluated by experts to be as high as Rs 2.5 crore (according to the prevailing rates in Hong Kong). That we have no other ready framework to evaluate this loss is even more telling.

It all started on June 23, when one of the tigers, Debashish, died of trypanosomysis, a blood parasitic disorder caused by the protozoa trypanosomiasis evanis and is spread by forest flies. Scared, the zoo authorities injected Berenil to 17 others, a drug known more for its curative rather than preventive qualities. Unconfirmed reports also claim that the tigers were not tested for the disease before they were injected with this highly toxic drug. On July 4, Sagar, one of the 17 tigers injected, was found floating in a pool. Eight others died the next day, and another succumbed the day after. Yet another death took place on July 7. The dead included eight white tigers.

Ironically, Nandan Kanan is known for its Royal Bengal Tigers. Before the tragedy, the zoo boasted of 56 tigers, out of which 26 were the rare white variety-the largest number of white tigers in captivity anywhere in the world. But these felines are crowded in 15 enclosures which are meant for only 40. Zoo authorities have also cited overpopulation as one of the reasons for the large-scale fatalities. Shortage of funds has made matters worse. Chief conservator (wildlife) Saroj Patnaik points out that while the budget for Nandan Kanan has gone up, it was not enough on certain items. Animals had to go without power for a week during the summer-air-conditioning, for instance, is a must for some non-tropical beasts. They were on a rationed diet and the sanitary conditions were deteriorating as a result of overcrowding. Although, the zoo had tried to off-load some of the cats, the sale price of Rs 5 lakh per white tiger and Rs 20,000 for a normal one was considered exorbitant. And the zoo has a staff of just 276 to handle the 944 animals, not to mention the steady inflow of visitors.

Questions have also been raised about the drug itself. While Berenil is widely used for treating trypanosomiasis, it is administered in very small doses (8 to 1.6 gms per 100 kg of body weight). Most vets agree an overdose could be fatal. Though the expert team set up by the state government is yet to submit its report, preliminary tests reveal that apart from the parasite, toxic elements were found in the remains of the felines. A zoo official also pointed to the discovery of a high blood toxima and a congestion of internal organs during the post-mortem. "This is the result of a highly toxic drug", he said.

Wildlife experts are surprised that the tragedy struck at Nandan Kanan, one of the better-managed zoos in the country. Says Arindam Mukherjee of the Wildlife Trust of India, "Apart from being one of the best zoos in the country, it also has one of the best banks of veterinary doctors available." In fact, the Nandan Kanan zoo is also famous for its breeding centre for white tigers. Mohan, the first white tiger, was spotted in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, in 1952. Fascinated by this freak of nature, the Maharaja of Rewa mated Mohan with normal coloured tigers in the hope of begetting more such white tigers. But he was disappointed when the cubs born were normal. Mohan was again mated with one of his own daughters, and this incestuous union produced a white tiger. "Most white tigers in the world originate from Mohan. It is completely unnatural from the word go," says Belinda.

A study of Mohan’s mating pattern will show that it takes a lot of selective mating and, in most cases, inbreeding to produce a white tiger. "A direct result of this is very low immunity," says Belinda. The probable reason why out of the 12 tigers dead so far, seven are white. Wildlife experts suggest that the team of experts should also study the existing gene pool at the zoo. "One has to ascertain whether these deaths are genetic or due to an infection or are they because of a high dosage?" asked an environment ministry official.

Bishwajit Mohanty from the World Wildlife Fund in Orissa agrees that the progeny of tigers could become weak due to inbreeding. But Dr L.N. Acharya, who started the white tiger breeding programme in Nandan Kanan in 1980, rules out this possibility. He claims that the breeding was done using a Least Inbreeding Coefficient and that the present generation of cats had practically no inbreeding. Dr Acharya says the zoo was in fact responsible for saving white tigers from extinction and the tragedy is just an accident.

"This is purely a zoo management problem and not a conservation issue per se. You don’t find white tigers in forests. They have no conservation value," says Arindam Mukherjee. But as a freak of nature, they do have a commercial value and work as a crowd-puller in zoos. Which is why a zoological park like Nandan Kanan, which was once known for its collection of tigers, is now making headlines for the wrong reasons-the largest number of tiger deaths in the world have taken place here.

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