ALMOST a month after the mysterious tiger deaths at the Nandankanan zoo, the verdict finally seems to have been reached on what might have caused them. And the culprits are not the vets at Bhubaneshwar's Nandankanan zoo, nor the Berenil they panic-strickenly injected into the 16 tigers. The blame, if the zoo probe committee is to believed, lies with last year's cyclone, which brought down the zoo's enclosing wall and brought in the cattle from neighbouring villages.
Even the ministry of environment and forests, which sent the five experts to Nandankanan, seems to have been embarrassed by the findings, hastily calling a brainstorming session in Chennai to make the report more credible. Short of actually denying the tigers had died, the committee had originally cleared zoo officials of any blame.
According to the five experts, of whom only two are vets, and that too of less than four years' experience of treating wild animals, the vets' line of treatment was entirely "correct" and "appropriate". The tigers had died of trypanosomiasis and there was nothing the vets at Nandankanan could have done other than administering the controversial drug, Berenil. It's another matter that tigers in Nandankanan are continuing quite perversely to die - an unlucky 13th tiger succumbed on July 30, and another three cubs are threatening to succumb to the blameless treatment of the blameless vets.
The report of the committee, submitted to the ministry within five days of their investigations in Nandankanan from July 7 to 10, says: "On the basis of blood smears, tests and post-mortem findings, trypanosomiasis was the major cause."
As for the scheduled drug, Berenil, which was widely believed to have caused the serial deaths, the committee concludes: "According to literature cited, Berenil is one of the drugs of choice. The doses given were also appropriate. Supportive therapy was also given. Therefore the line of treatment was appropriate." The vets, reasons the committee, had no choice but to administer Berenil because unlike other drugs which are injected sub-cutaneously, Berenil is injected intra-muscularly, and therefore acts very fast.
As for administering the drug on a day when the animals were fasting, the committee dismisses this theory as "not well-founded" on the ground that Berenil is administered to animals who are sick and off feed. So fasting cannot have an adverse impact.
Nor, says the committee, was contaminated meat a cause: "The normal method of communication of the disease is through the bites of flies and tics; it has to reach the bloodstream either through the veins or the buccal (oral) cavity, and the possibility of all tigers having wounds in their buccal cavity through which the organisms reached the bloodstream is very remote. Besides, the disease-causing organisms cannot survive more than six to eight hours after slaughter, and the meat fed to the tigers was more than 12 hours after slaughter."
The committee blames the stray cattle which carried trypanosomiasis into the zoo. Besides, it says the weeds in the zoo - with the onset of the monsoons - "became large causing high tic infestation inside the tigers' enclosure".
Wildlife experts, however, were bemused by this ingenuous explanation for the tiger deaths. "Trypanosomiasis is not transmitted by tics," asserts Dr N.V.K. Ashraf, assistant director of Coimbatore zoo, "but by biting flies." Agrees wildlife expert Ravi Chellum from the Wildlife Institute of India in Dehradun: "It's like saying malaria is spread by flies."
Even the vets' failure to detect the onset of the epidemic has been attributed to faulty feeding arrangements. The lions and tigers in the safari park are supposed to be fed only in the feeding cells constructed at one end of the enclosure. But the cat population in Nandankanan far exceeded the number of feeding cells provided for them. The 103 lions and tigers in the park, for instance, had only 67 feeding cells between them. According to the report, this led to the animals carrying the food away from the feeding cells. The remnants of meat bred flies and also made it difficult for the vets to keep a close watch on the animals.
Far from blaming zoo officials for the tiger deaths, the committee recommends that they not be transferred too frequently. Both the vets in Nandankanan, according to the report, were transferred within a year of each other, leaving the zoo without expertise.
The ministry is understandably embarrassed; within three days of receiving the experts' banal findings, it called a conference of experts in Chennai on July 19 and 20. This time the experts included professors from the veterinary colleges of Chennai, Bhubaneshwar and Guwahati, besides 10 zoo directors, an expert from the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Belgium, and a representative from the army, Col R.S. Rawat.
However, even this panel of experts, called expressly to toothcomb the report and apportion a discreet amount of the blame on the vets, remained mysteriously silent on a significant lapse in the investigation: the cause of the tigers' death was suspected to be a reaction or overdose of Berenil, and neither bloodsmears, tests or post-mortem findings could indicate whether the tigers had died of a drug reaction. "It would need tissue culture and other advanced tests," points out Dr Ashraf, adding that one cause of death could be a faulty batch of injections. "Unless the whole batch of Berenil was seized, and tested on some other cat, it would be impossible to say the tigers had died of reaction or faulty drug," says Dr Ashraf.
Instead, the Chennai team of experts focused on another lapse by zoo officials: in June 1999, five tigers were taken ill with trypanosomiasis in Nandankanan, of whom three died. Despite this outbreak, zoo officials failed to administer a prophylactic dose to the tigers.
Says ministry spokesman, additional inspector general of forests, S.C. Sharma: "The vets were to blame for not taking action in time and then panicking when the epidemic broke out by administering the drug to 16 animals in a single day. It was an error of judgement on their part."
The experts, however, are not convinced of this argument. "After all, zoos routinely inoculate animals every year. How can this be risky?" wonders Chellum.
If the committee was easy on the officials, it came down heavily on the state government for the population explosion within Nandankanan zoo. "The first step to prevent such disasters in the future is to reduce the number of lions and tigers in Nandankanan," avers Sharma, pointing out that even after the death of 13 tigers, the zoo has 44 tigers and 47 lions, exceeding the Central Zoo Authority's guideline to house no more than 10 carnivores in a large zoo.
It is time, according to Sharma, that the Orissa government introduced a rebate offer on their prized white tigers. "'Buy one white tiger and get two lions free', is what they should be offering other zoos, instead of hanging on to them. The cost of feeding the animals itself is enormous - around Rs 60 lakh a year. Reduce it to one-third and there is more money for improving conditions such as supplying potable water for the animals."
The report also rapped the state government for failing to repair the compound wall of the zoo despite receiving a Rs 1 crore grant from the Centre. "Of this grant, only Rs 35 lakh was actually spent on the zoo," points out Sharma.
Others say the committee report does not address the real issues of zoo and wildlife management. For a start, suggests Valmik Thapar, chairman of the Cat Specialist Group of South Asia, it is time there was fresh thinking on zoo management, including hygiene, design and breeding. Especially training of zoo vets. "Zoo vets are mostly cow and buffalo doctors," says Thapar. "They should be sent abroad to acquire expertise in wildlife medicine wherever it is available." The real issue, says Chellum, "is to make every citizen assume responsibility for our wildlife."
And judging by the response to the tiger deaths - over 20 questions in Parliament, a raging debate in the Rajya Sabha, daily front page news about wildlife, renewed popular interest in zoos and wildlife - it may be the next step in the evolution of zoos. From curiosity parks to living museums and onwards to centres of conservation.