10 December 2012 Society environment: zoos

The Life Sentence

India’s zoos are in a shambles, conservation needs new ideas
The Life Sentence
The Life Sentence

Behind Bars

  • In ’06, India had 159 recognised zoological parks, but adding illegal ones, it could number 350-500
  • Zoo conditions deplorable, tragedy like at Nandankanan in 2000 when 11 tigers died, always a risk
  • Captive breeding not working out, why not spend the money on habitat management in wild?
  • Illegal wildlife trade booming in India, evidence to show that zoos are part of the supply chain


Kiara is irresistibly adorable, but as pictures of the tiny Liliger cub went viral, conservationists across the globe started questioning her very existence. Bred in captivity, Kiara is the offspring of a Liger (itself born of a lion-tigress mating) crossed with a lion. In short she is a mutant, a genetic mish-mash of felines bred in captivity that would never exist in the wild. The Novosibirsk zoo in Russia can expect a roar from the public when little Kiara is put on display but, really, the cub is little more than an extravagant experiment with zero conservation values. Closer  home, a more gruesome zoo-related incident made headlines recently. A young tigress at the Itanagar zoo in Arunachal Pradesh was shot at from close range and then hacked to pieces by unidentified assailants. Zoo guards returned from their dinner break in time to witness the fleeing poachers—and an enclosure strewn with body parts of the big cat.

So how did zoos become akin to death row for these wild animals when the whole idea of setting them up was exactly the opposite? As of 2006, India had 159 recognised zoological parks but many believe the actual number to be between 350-500, if unregistered facilities are included. The ethical dilemma of keeping wild animals in captivity has for years been justified by touting the educational and conservation value of zoos. Yet a close examination of zoos not just in India but across the globe invalidate this argument. On the grounds of animal welfare alone, the majority of zoos in India could face closure. Most, if not all, violate most standards for the housing and management of animals in zoos, as laid out in the Recognition of Zoo Rules, 1992. 

The Indian Zoo Enquiry, a report published by the Compassionate Crusaders Trust and Zoocheck, Canada, as far back as in 2004, paints a bleak picture. An entry for one of the Aurangabad zoo’s inmates reads: “Assamese Macaque: 15 ft x 15 ft x 10 ft cage. Cement substrate. Few logs. Cement water reservoir, 1.5 ft x 1.5 ft. Two attached dens. One animal observed pacing and bar biting. Visitors teasing the animal by throwing dust and spitting. No signboard, but barrier present.” Two pages later, we reach the Bondola zoo in Goa. On the Asiatic elephant there it says, “Asiatic Elephant: 100 ft x 45 ft yard. Soil substrate. Stones and trees present. 5 ft wide moat at rear of enclosure. One shed for mahout. No food observed. No pool or water facility. Two individuals observed, both chained. Animals used for rides and made to kneel on the concrete road. Signboard and barrier present.” Housing conditions for animals at the Delhi zoo are just as deplorable: “White Tiger: 15 ft x 15 ft x 7 ft cage. Thatched roof. Back of the cage cemented. White sand substrate. One log. One wooden platform on the ground. No food or water. Four animals observed. No signboard but barrier present.” And all this is not for any paucity of funds. This year, the Central Zoological Authority’s (CZA) annual budget is Rs 18.5 crore with a major chunk, Rs 5.65 crore, reserved for the Delhi zoo. Surely, this is enough to ensure that the animals get more room to roam and cleaner surroundings.

The Indian Zoo Enquiry, a 168-page- long document, is a blood-chilling account of the plight of thousands of animals in Indian zoos, punctuated by numerous images of emaciated, dull-eyed animals lying forlornly in cement cells. Erratic news items have highlighted the abuse from time to time but no case made waves like the Nandankanan tragedy. In June 2000, 11 tigers at this Orissa zoo died of Trypanosomiasis, a disease transmitted by flies, within four days of each other.

Conservationists and enthusiasts blamed the deaths on the negligence of the zoo staff. But it’s the idea of the zoo itself—as a scientific institution—which needs to be challenged. As it is, animals in captivity exhibit some dysfunctional behaviour but it becomes even more apparent in the absence of enrichment, habitat management and proper nutrition, areas in which Indian zoos are clearly deficient. So is it perhaps time to do away with zoos altogether? Yes, says Bittu Sahgal, editor of Sanctuary Asia. “Teaching children about wildlife by exposing them to zoos is the equivalent of teaching them about crime by trotting them off to gawk at prisoners behind bars. The concept is inherently flawed.” With scientific advancements allowing us to study wildlife through non-invasive means and in their natural habitats, there is no reason to keep animals captive for educational purposes, adds Sahgal.

But zoo advocates argue that these institutions hold a safety net for endangered populations and that captive breeding is essential for the survival of numerous species. Leading herpetologist and erstwhile curator of the Madras Crocodile Bank, Gerry Martin, says, “The current state of zoos in India and much of the world is deplorable! Having said that, there are examples of zoos that truly bring value to education and conservation—both in situ and ex situ. In India, zoos are primarily menageries that possess only exhibit value. Hence the well-being of individual animals is often overlooked and even ignored. Having wild animals in captivity could contribute to conservation but is by no means synonymous with it. However, we need to realise that it is bad zoos that need to be shut down and not the concept of zoos that needs to be shunned.”

An Assam zoo worker cuts up the body of dead Bengal tiger Joy before cremation

The critics counter saying if the massive resources spent on breeding animals were instead channelled towards habitat management and law enforcement we may not have to fight extinction at all. In addition, the reintroduction of captive bred animals into the wild is an infinitely complicated process, many a time dangerous and fraught. Also, in the odd case where captive breeding is necessary, zoos need not be the answer. Says Vivek Menon of Wildlife Trust of India: “Rescue and rehabilitation has moved on from being a zoo task in the 19th century to one done by specialist centres.”

A Delhi-based conservationist shared an alarming story, “A bear simply disappeared into thin air from the Delhi zoo....”

For example, the Pygmy Hog Conservation Project has shown how captive breeding can be done the right way. Located in a quiet corner of bustling Guwahati, the animals at the PHCP centre are in the pink of health. Visitors are allowed only by prior appointment and are taken on a guided tour of the facility before being handed factsheets and brochures on conservation efforts. Here, the diminutive and critically endangered pygmy hog is bred and released in the Manas National Park to augment existing wild populations of the animal. A number of hogs were successfully reintroduced to their grassland habitat earlier this year. Focused, scientific and with no profit lure, the PHCP is the antithesis of Indian zoos.

Adding to the woes, now there is gathering evidence that a number of Indian zoos are either involved in the country’s booming illegal wildlife trade or are unknowingly supplying to it. A Delhi-based conservationist shared a particularly alarming story of “missing animals” from the capital’s zoo. “A bear simply disappeared into thin air. No one was held accountable,” he says. Zoo horror stories are many. There was the tragic death of a tigress named Sakhi at the Nehru zoo in Hyderabad in 2000. Officials woke one morning to discover the skinned carcass of the young tigress floating in a water tank. A number of zoo staff were suspended but the case itself was only cracked some four years later, and that too by accident. Though the accused was not from the zoo, the involvement of zoo officials in the murder is still suspected.

Lax security at zoos across the country makes them an easy target for poachers. In 2009, a gang of criminals stole eight rare marmosets from the Alipur zoo. The same group is believed to have kidnapped a pair of macaws from Kankaria earlier that year. In 2010, senior officials from Chhatbir zoo in Chandigarh landed in trouble for illegally procuring four Shaheen falcons from the black market. More recently, in September, an Indian Great Horned Owl was stolen from the same zoo. International news reports make no bones of the fact that zoos in countries like China act as cover for contraband smuggling. And then there are the tiger farms and bear bile factories. Prerna Bindra, senior consultant with WCS-India, gives us further details, “By now it’s established that tiger farms illegally trade in tiger derivatives. Farming tigers for trade fuels the market, in turn leading to poaching of more wild tigers.”

Further afield in the West, even world- renowned zoos such as Twycross and Jersey, rightfully lauded for their in-situ conservation work, would be hard- pressed to defend the huge surplus of animals in their care that serve no conservation purpose. Perhaps, the greatest condemnation of keeping wild animals in captivity comes from within the community itself. Conservationist Shubhobroto Ghosh in his thesis lays bare the sentiments of those who run the Cornwall Monkey Sanctuary. An employee is quoted saying: “As an organisation that has housed monkeys for almost forty years, the sanctuary is well placed to show, from first-hand experience, how monkeys in even the best captive conditions suffer from their captivity.”

The data available on the wretched conditions of zoo animals highlight the urgent need to recognise Indian zoos as ‘profit-making institutions’ and not ‘conservation centres’. Paltry entry fees and the disinterest of authorities allow visitors to use zoos as picnic grounds and to harass animals at will. Perhaps better technology and understanding of wildlife coupled with a refined sense of ethics will invalidate the need for zoos one day. Till then, unfortunately, tigers will roam cement platforms and birds will perch on iron hands.

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