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Monday, March 20, 2000



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This zoo needs friends

Kala and Murugan are rather unusual names for a pair of hippopotamuses which are denizens of the African swamps. So is Arumugham for a European brown bear. The South American jaguars are called Shyam and Lakshmi.

Outside Chennai city, at the Arignar Anna Zoological Park (AAZP), popularly known as Vandalur Zoo, the privilege of naming the animals is with the animal-keepers. They give their wards the same names they would give their children. And the bond developed by some of the animal-keepers is almost parental.

Afternoons in February are not that warm in the zoo, considering that peak summer is a couple of months away. But Kala and Murugan had dived under the water in their enclosure. They lifted their heads with dog-like obedience when their keeper called out for them.

The zoo, which is among the 15 largest in the country, now plans to introduce the concept of `Friends of the Zoo' through which interested persons can help in the upkeep of the animals by taking an individual, family or corporate membership.

According to zoo Director N. Krishnakumar, the friends could provide either technical help or financial support, such as adopting the upkeep of an animal. ``We are looking forward to involving real zoo supporters.''

The Tamil Nadu Government has cleared the idea in principle and now the nitty-gritties have to be worked out, he said. There are plans for registering `Friends of the Zoo' as a separate society which, in turn, would have an MoU with a corporate body. The authorities are also working out the incentives to be offered to prospective members.

A concept pioneered in the West, Friends of the Zoo societies get people intimately involved with the zoos. In the process, the friends understand the significance of conservation. Remember Gerald Durell's efforts at setting up the Jersey Wildlife Preser vation Trust with the active support of the residents of Jersey Island?

The Vandalur Zoo already has a zoo club, comprising college students, which was formed two-and-a-half years ago. The club, according to Krishnakumar, helps keep the premises clean. The members also conduct educational programmes and carry out patrols.

``These young people are the strength of the zoo,'' Krishnakumar said. In many of the large zoos in the developed countries, it is the volunteers who later become zoo staff and supporters, he said.

The club members have been ``98 per cent successful'' in controlling the entry of plastic bags into the park. If swallowed, plastic bags can choke wild animals to death as in the case of a llama at the zoo.

The volunteers are an important part of zoo management and include veterinarians, managers, biologists, animal-keepers, architects and educationists.

``With the natural habitats shrinking, the zoo provides the opportunity to see the best,'' observed Krishnakumar. ``If people's eco-awareness increases from the zoo they will develop the right attitude towards conservation.''

As the wildlife programmes relayed through satellite channels reach more and more homes, the role of zoos as mere display centres is decreasing. Thus, through the Friends of the Zoo programme, members will receive value-added education.

The proposal is in line with the National Zoo Policy, prepared by the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests in 1998, which states that the main objective of zoos will be to complement and strengthen national efforts in the conservation of the country 's rich biodiversity. The species which have no chance of survival in the wild would be bred under ex-situ conditions.

Further, the zoos are expected to inspire visitors with empathy for wild animals and create an awareness of the need for preservation of natural resources and ecological balance.

As it is neither possible nor advisable for large numbers of people to visit national parks and wildlife sanctuaries, large zoos like the one at Vandalur offer a viable alternative.

According to Krishnakumar, globally, the concept of zoo management is changing -- it is an evolution from a zoo to a zoological park to a biological park. Perhaps, over time, the Vandalur Zoo could move in that direction.

The zoo attempts to link ex-situ managers and researchers with in-situ managers and researchers working in protected areas in the State.

Through the Friends of the Zoo society, Krishnakumar hopes to augment the zoo's financial resources. During 1998-99, the zoo had an expenditure of Rs. 3.26 crores while the gate and other sundry collections brought in only Rs. 40.96 lakhs.

The latest responsibility entrusted to the Vandalur Zoo by the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) is the creation of a rescue centre for animals that have strayed from forests. The primary objective would be to treat the animals, if injured, and return them to the forest. If that were not possible, then the animals should be used for captive breeding.

The Vandalur Zoo is also one of the five zoos identified and funded by the CZA for the rehabilitation of circus animals. So the next time you visit Vandalur, you might meet the veteran animals who, years ago, had entertained you under the circus lights.

Pictures by Shaju John

Jungle in the city

Though Tamil Nadu has only 17 per cent of its area under forests (compared to more than 30 per cent in Madhya Pradesh) it has a distinct advantage of both the Eastern and the Western Ghats running through it.

The altitude varies from the small hills near Chennai to the 8,000-ft high Nilgiri mountain block. So does the rainfall, from 5,000 mm a year near Mukurti to a few hundred mm in some parts. This has resulted in a large diversity of flora and fauna in the State. The Vandalur Zoo's objective is to be a repository of the State's fauna.

Set in a 510-hectare reserve forest, the zoo has the dry evergreen vegetation of the Eastern Ghats. The zoo is also a significant link in the conservation cycle as a site for ex-situ (outside the natural habitat) conservation of nearly 44 endangered anim al species, according to N. Krishnakumar, zoo Director.

The order of priority is local species first, followed by regional, national and international species, Krishnakumar added. Species indigenous to the Western and Eastern Ghats as well as other parts of the Indian sub-continent can be found here, includin g the lion-tailed macaque, Nilgiri langur, black buck, hog deer, barking deer, mouse deer and king cobra.

Fact file

Getting there: There are frequent bus services to Vandalur Zoo from the main bus stand opposite the High Court in Chennai. Vandalur can also be reached by metre-guage suburban trains running between Beach station and Chingleput. Private vehicles are not allowed inside the zoo, but you can get around on the battery-operated vehicles and the lion safari. Since distances are quite long, walking is not advised for the less adventurous.

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