February 20, 2013



Credit: Devki Nandan
Gandhiji once said, "The greatness of a society and its moral progress can be judged by the way it treats its animals". Like many of the principles that the Mahatma lived and died for, we Indians seem to have forgotten the above mentioned words from our most famous founding father. The horrific incident that took place within the confines of the Samrat Ashoka Prani Udyan in Kanpur last month will certainly help me drive home my point. On the night of January 20, 2013 a pack of stray dogs sneaked into the black buck enclosure, killing 31 of these endangered antelope until the guards finally woke up from their deep slumber, early next morning, managing to save seven others. While the Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav was surprisingly quick in his action, suspending several officials including the Director and ordered a high level inquiry to look into the issue, the sad part is that this is not just a one off case. In October 2012, a man was mauled by a pair of lions when he jumped into their den at the Nanadankanan Zoo in Odisha and a couple of days later, a tiger named Bhima bit off the forearm of a toddler while he was attempting to fed in Bellary. In September that year, three poachers killed a young tigress when the six guards on duty had gone for dinner. On January 5, 2012 a pair of feral dogs raided the New Delhi Zoo leaving four Chinakaras dead. The frequency with which such events are being reported highlight the sorry state of affairs in our zoological parks and the apathy that we have towards our wildlife. The time is ripe for a complete overhaul of the manner in which our menageries are run.

A zoological garden, abbreviated as zoo is a place, generally situated in urban areas to exhibit various forms of fauna including common, indigenous and exotic species, allowing visitors to view and study them at close range, with the aim of simulating interest in their conservation in their natural habitat. In the early 1990s, there were over 300 such wildlife parks in India, some of which housed its animals in extremely unhygienic conditions without any consideration of their prefernces in the wild or behaviour. While some of the individuals were kept in solitude for years, some others were confined to over crowded enclosures whereas many had become sick due to years of negligence and in complete absence of basic veterinary services. In 1992, however the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) was established to lay down guidelines for maintaining such parks and for the upkeep of their inmates. Over the years, the CZA has recognized roughly 160 zoos whereas there are still close to 90 unrecognized ones still in operation. While the organization has carried out several commendable tasks like training of zoo personnel, captive breeding, maintaining a gene bank of endangered fauna and monitoring of genetic variations in species, the numerous untoward incidents that have occurred in our zoos especially in the last two years have at least in my mind, put a big question mark over its effectiveness in fulfilling its most basic aim. Considering that both people and beasts have suffered in these cases, it is extremely important for us to take stock of the situation to prevent loss of more innocent lives.

The biggest problem faced by our zoological parks is the lack of funds needed to upgrade the existing infrastructure, which in many cases has not been done since their inception and for the welfare of the creatures living there. From feeding and health care for animals to paying the staff and for providing basic amenities to the visitors, any such facility will incur considerable amount of expenses for its proper functioning. As such, there is a need to release adequate supply of money, more importantly on a timely basis. Due to scarcity of funds, the enclosures and fences are not repaired promptly, becoming a big security risk. In fact, if the protective walls around the black buck cage at the Kanpur zoo or the Indian gazelle cage at the Delhi zoo were mended in time, the massacre of the innocent would have never happened in the first place. Also, many of our menageries have a shortage of staff and in some, the situation is so bad that the existing employees are underpaid or in worst case scenarios, not paid at all for months together. As such, the Central government needs to pitch in and should provide financial assistance to zoos in the country. To make sure that the funds are utilized judiciously, they should be channeled to individual zoos via the CZA. Regular audits and surprise inspections need to be conducted to ensure that the budget is spent cautiously. Again, contributions from the state government in the maintenance of zoos within their territorial limits will be an added benefit. 

Credit: Dr. Ajit Deshmukh
The second issue concerning our wildlife parks is the lack of well trained and experienced staff. Handling wild creatures is an art and requires a thorough understanding of the species, its food habits and general behaviour, all which can be learnt only through years of experience. The CZA needs to conduct more nation wide camps for teaching the zoo keepers how to handle these beasts, especially the more dangerous and unpredictable ones like the big cats, rhinos, crocodiles and elephants. In such sessions, they must be taught the knack of inferring the mood of the animals by observing them, something which will come in handy in the long run. Wildlife experts from outside can be roped in and their experience in working with these species can provide valuable insights. A third area of focus should be making the best veterinary facilities available for the denizens within the park premises. In one of its report published in June last year, PETA has said that 67 of the animals in Bengal's Alipore Zoo including tigers, lions, chimps, kangaroos, birds and snakes died due to disease. By conducting regular health check ups, vaccinations and screening for potential diseases, such deaths can be prevented. Isolating unwell animals will help in preventing the spreading of contagious diseases. Also, basic standards of hygiene needs to be maintained in and around the zoo premise. Healthy food and clean water must be made available to all animals kept in the menageries. Also, specialized foreign help can be sort in curbing ailments or conducting specialized surgeries on which local expertise is not available.

The CZA needs to play a key role in increasing co-ordination amongst various zoos in India. This becomes important in exchanging of both animals as well as ideas from one zoo to another. Transfer of individuals will help every zoo involved in showcasing different kinds of denizens, thereby helping in making people more aware of the wildlife. Also, this will prevent inbreeding which lowers immunity, making them more susceptible to ailments. MoUs should be signed with parks in Europe and United States for sharing of information on animals, health care and people engagement. One such memorandum was recently signed between the Shri Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens in Mysore and the Leipiz Zoo in Germany. Under this agreement, the German zoo which is an expert in handling transportation of nocturnal animals will get a few bears for its renowned sloth bear conservation programme, whereas six Indian counterparts including the Mysore zoo will gain this knowledge. It is important that this deal has been possible only with the active participation of the CZA. Similarly, it will be only beneficial to have more such initiatives in the future. Also, our zoos need to become centres for conservation of endangered species. Breeding of vulnerable species can be done here and mature individuals can be released into the wild, thus helping revive critical populations. Research institutes can also be set up in the vicinity to study these creatures and develop species-specific strategies for their protection.

However, the biggest challenge will be to continue to attract more and more visitors by implementing new ideas and make a visit to the zoo, a more exiting experience to the public. Few know that Design Thinking, the new buzzword in the IT sector was first used in the Hamburg Zoo. While menageries in the west continue to change with times, the ones in India are just like museums, simply exhibiting wildlife, allowing minimal interaction with humans. The various steps that can be taken in this regards are:

(1) All major zoos across the world have sections showcasing the flora and fauna from one part of the world like the Amazonian rain forests or the African grasslands. Considering the diversity of wildlife that India is blessed with, this can be a very good initiative helping educate people about our natural heritage in areas like the evergreen forests of the Western Ghats or the coniferous trees in Himalayan foothills or the Sundri forests in Bengal.

(2) Secondly, we need to have more aviaries, aquariums and safaris so that people can see the animals at a much closer range. Expertise regarding managing of avaries can be sought from officials running the aviary adjacent to the Karanji lake in Mysore, the biggest of the kind in the nation. As, we have an extensive coastline, aquariums can help in increasing awareness of fishes, turtles and other kinds of marine life. Safaris housing carnivores and other big animals will also help in drawing large crowds. also, reptile park, like in Chennai will significantly contribute in dispelling myths and misconceptions about these species.

(3) All zoos should be encouraged to have programmes, wherein both adults and children can become volunteers to help in maintaining the zoos. Also, these volunteers can act as guides, explaining people about the animals and their eco system. Such a scheme is in operation at the San Diego zoo in the US. Increasing public participation will certainly prove to be beneficial.

(4) Our corporate sector also needs to chip in. Very few of the Indian companies indulge in CSR - Corporate Social Responsibility and even those who do, rarely work for wildlife conservation. Our industries need to realize that the carbon footprints they emit also harms the forest and its inhabitants. As such, it is obligatory for them to take care of the animals too. Besides monetary help, expertise from the industry sector can be sought in management.

(5) Finally, every zoo in the country should have basic facilities like eateries and restrooms. Those which do not provide these should be immediately de-recognized. Other value added facilities which can be provided include libraries, gardens, play areas and parking space. All these will make help making the visit to the zoo an affair to remember.


(1) Credit: Devki Nandan 
Original: India Nature Watch - A Beautiful Evening (Link)

(2) Credit: Dr. Ajit Deshmukh 
Original: India Nature Watch - The Black buck's harem (Link)