March 29, 2020
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Big cats and small deer are fair game in the death cells that pretend to be India’s zoological parks


Zoos are like jails," additional solicitor general Altaf Ahmad told the Supreme Court days after 12 tigers died in Bhubaneshwar’s Nandan Kanan Zoo, "and it’s time for the court to improve the conditions of its inmates." But given the estimated 20,000 deaths that take place in a year in India’s 258 zoos, the apex court has a real task on hand. "The figures are alarming," said Chief Justice A.S. Anand while asking for a probe report on the tiger deaths. "We now find the animals’ condition is worse (than poaching) in the protective custody of zoos."

Take a random listing. In May 1996, six leopards died of feline entritis in the Patna zoo. In December 1996, two tigers and three leopards died in the Bhopal zoo of a viral disease. In March 1999, 25 black bucks perished in the Bikaner zoo in an attack by stray dogs. And, in January this year, 16 cheetal died of cold in the Lucknow zoo.

In fact, it was the abysmal conditions of Indian zoos that prompted the government to set up the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) 10 years ago to oversee the functioning of these reservoirs of life. But, says environmentalist Bittu Sahgal, "More often than not, the CZA members wind up making excuses for their colleagues, who just happen to run zoos."

Packed into overcrowded, smelly cages, underfed by keepers who pilfer the food meant for animals, overdosed by zoo vets who know nothing of wildlife medicine, tormented by visitors for whom the animals are on exhibition, it’s not just tigers dying a dog’s death in zoos. There is no central register of the total number of animals that die in zoos every year but experts have put the mortality rate within zoos at a shocking 10 to 15 per cent of the zoo population. According to one study by the CZA, for instance, 64.6 per cent of the Asiatic lions in Indian zoos died in their first year itself. The study pinpointed "improper housing and veterinary facilities" in the zoos for the high rate of premature deaths. Admits Dr Rita Goyle, who worked in the Delhi zoo for one-and-a-half years, "There is no specialisation in wildlife medicine. But the books are there for those who are interested in consulting them."

But according to ornithologist Rajat Bhargava from the AMU Centre for Wildlife, "The state of veterinary science in India is primeval. A veterinary degree is nothing compared to the vast knowledge needed in zoos." Lack of veterinary experience, admit vets across the country, resulted in the recent tragedy at Nandan Kanan zoo. Others say the lack of laboratory facilities leads them to guesswork that could prove fatal for the animals. "Animals need pathologists much more than we humans as they cannot explain their problems," points out Dr Utkarsh Shukla of the Lucknow zoo. "In our case, we are expected to act as the compounder, pathologist and the doctor as well." To make matters worse, as Shukla explains, vets are usually sent to the zoos on a two-year posting from the department of animal husbandry. "As a result, they have little dedication towards the animals. Instead, they wait for their next posting."

Zoo management is as ad-hoc. In Maharashtra, for instance, most zoos are run by the municipal corporation. In Kerala, the state museum runs the Thiruvananthapuram zoo. In Mumbai, a botanist is in charge of the Byculla zoo. Points out India’s first lady of animals and minister for social justice Maneka Gandhi: "In August 1998, the cabinet passed an order asking for a separate zoo cadre but despite 10 reminders from my ministry, nothing has been done till now. "

Zoo managers, on the other hand, claim that zoos, originally set up to exhibit wild animals, are being increasingly called upon to perform a function they are not equipped for: shelter and breed endangered species in captivity. Hundreds of injured, homeless or abandoned animals are also delivered to zoos, which are already overstretched for space and funds. For instance, a leopard rescued from the outskirts of Guwahati was taken to the zoo recently. The leopard had fallen face down into a well and sustained other injuries from the prodding sticks and stones of the villagers. "We kept it in an observation cage and treated its injuries but it still died," says Guwahati zoo director Ritesh Bhattacharjee.

Similarly, Lucknow’s Prince of Wales Zoo was ordered by a court two years ago to take in 100 animals confiscated from mobile zoos. "To accommodate them meant we had to compromise on other animals," says zoo director G.P. Sharma. "Also, it took the CZA six months to send us the funds to feed these animals." The Lucknow zoo has now more leopards than it can cope with. Some of them are man-eaters brought in from the Terai, and the rest are a result of prolific breeding.

It’s a one-way street, admits Project Tiger director P.K. Sen. "Some tigers who are injured or aged or are abandoned cubs from the wild are sent to zoos. But no big cat has ever been transferred from a zoo to the wild. How can you release tigers bred in captivity? They will start straying into the villages."

Like in Lucknow, most zoos have more tigers and other large cats than they know what to do with. Tigers breed easily in captivity and live longer in zoos than they do in the wild-20 years against their normal lifespan of 15 years. Worse, tigers have no exchange value in the barter system that exists between the different zoos. As Nandan Kanan discovered a little too late. Since the first cubs landed from the Alipur zoo, the tigers at Nandan Kanan have given birth to over 300 tiger cubs, including 123 white tiger cubs. Feeding the large population of big cats-Rs 25 lakh worth of beef a year-was a gargantuan proposition for the funds-starved zoo, so the keepers were forced to put the animals on a rationed diet.

Other zoos have been wiser. The Delhi zoo, for instance, keeps the male and female tigers strictly segregated until they need to replenish their stock of the felines. "It’s called planned breeding," explains zoo director B.R. Sharma. Forced abstinence is not the only solution to overpopulation in zoos. Animals like neelgai, cheetal and sambhar, whose fecundity is nightmarish for zoo managers, are usually castrated. In the Mumbai zoo, the problem of proliferating spotted deer, sambhar and black buck is solved by separating the males from the herd. Even then, zoo managers are periodically forced to increase their enclosures because too many deer in one enclosure leads not only to overcrowding but fighting among the males for territory.

Similarly, the director of the Mumbai zoo, K. Velodi, says they have stopped breeding tigers and lions for many years now because they are all "mixed breed". In fact, inbreeding and the resulting dilution of the genepool makes most of the lions and tigers bred in zoos of little conservation value. Last year, the CZA circulated a report of the genepool of animals in zoos across the country to improve the stock of lions and tigers. The report showed that all 20 lions in the Chhat Bir zoo near Chandigarh were hybrid. So were the two tigers in the same zoo. So too were all the lions in the Calcutta zoo. And some in Bhubaneshwar, Guwahati and Hyderabad zoos. Between all the zoological parks included in the study, only 33 lions were pure Asiatic, leading to the CZA’s suggestion that these lions should be part of a gene bank that would populate all zoos. But like many other suggestions, it never got off the ground.

Experts say by overbreeding or neutering the animals, zoo managers are defeating the primary function of a modern zoo, which is captive breeding. "Zoos are the best place, for instance, to breed the Siberian crane. Or the Great Indian Bustard, of which less than 1,000 birds now exist. What can you do when they are not surviving in the wild? Where will the gene pool come from when all of them die in the wild?" wonders Bhargava.

The Darjeeling zoo, in the news for the death of a snow leopard, is the best example of specialised breeding, says Bhargava. "It specialises in breeding animals which are found in that zone, like the snow leopard and the Red Panda. The vegetation is very favourable and the intention of the authorities is very, very clear. Instead of having many species just for exhibition purposes, they just have a couple of species special to that kind of climate."

But where is the expertise and dedication needed to breed in captivity and rehabilitate in the wild, asks Goyle. "We just don’t have that kind of patience and long-term planning." The Mumbai zoo released more than 100 spotted deer and 24 wild boar into the Sanjay Gandhi National Park on the outskirts of the city. But relocating other animals into the wild requires years of patient effort, beyond the capabilities of either the zoo or wildlife management.

"Even relocating monkeys in a zoo is not an easy task," says Goyle. When six monkeys were captured from a locality and shifted to the Delhi zoo, for instance, the zoo authorities were hard put to deal with the new arrivals. Left in the open, they began attacking visitors and when they were shifted into the enclosure with the other monkeys, they were mauled to death.

Territorial instincts are not the only hazard animals face. The most serious danger is posed by the very visitors for whose education the animals are condemned to be caged. "Education? What a laugh," scoffs Sahgal. "Our zoos educate visitors on methods of torture. When you combine general insensitivity with visitors who poke, prod, tease and otherwise harass animals, how can our zoos be anything other than death traps?"

With zoos performing none of the functions that could justify their existence, the question that arises is, as environmentalist Debi Goenka points out: "Why do you need zoos at all?" The answer was suggested in a judgement by the Kerala High Court last month: give animals fundamental rights. They deserve them more than humans.

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