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Friday, Oct 08, 2004

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Caring in captivity

M. J. Krishna

Elephant deaths and other tragedies that visited Mysore zoo in recent times force comparisons with animal facilities elsewhere in the world.

The elephants' enclosure at the Chamarajendra Zoological Park in Mysore.

The Chamarajendra Zoological Park in Mysore has enchanted visitors for over a hundred years. Driving to the picturesque Chamundi Hills, one can sight towering necks of giraffes jutting from behind an imposing wall. These giraffes have been "hand-reared" by zoo authorities from their infancy.

The Mysore zoo prides itself in showcasing over 2,000 species of animals and rare birds, as also a fossil tree trunk dating back a million years. In 2002, the centenary year of the zoo, the authorities announced a 20-year master plan. This included a five-year zoo management programme aimed at meeting the psychological requirements of the animals, replicating their natural environment and enhancing their comfort, as also improving visitor facilities. The proposed measures were meant to turn the park into one "among the best in the world". Closed circuit televisions would monitor the zoo's store areas and keep an eye on personnel activities to optimise co-ordination between zoo officials and lower-level staff. Corporate houses and individuals were invited to "adopt" an animal and sponsor zoo activities.

On a recent visit to the park, we came across name boards announcing "adoptions" and sponsorship of several animal enclosures. At lunch time, we witnessed a heart-warming sight at the elephants' enclosure... when zoo attendants brought over sacks filled with food, a family of two cow elephants and their calves smelt the goodies and ran towards the feeders.

The elephants, one of which seemed due to deliver a little one shortly, herded the infants and awaited their turn, while the calves impatiently gobbled the food hand-fed by the men. Nearby, a magnificent tusker was chained; the zoo attendants explained that the animal was in "heat" and posed a danger to the other pachyderms. The impression one gained was that the animals were safe and well taken care of at this facility... Only that it was too good to be true!

Some time in September, news trickled in that two of the mighty animals had died a mysterious death. Soon after, grieving and perplexed zoo officials made the shocking announcement that the post-mortem showed Ganesh, the adult tusker, and Roopa, a 14-year-old cow elephant, had in fact been poisoned. Zoo lovers also bemoaned the recent death of a chimpanzee and the previous drowning of two crocodiles at this park. With these tragic deaths, the Mysore zoo joined the dubious ranks of Bhubaneswar's Nandankanan Zoo and Hyderabad's Nehru Zoological Park that witnessed the loss of tigers...

One wondered what became of Mysore zoo's ambitious "master plan". The authorities now talk of an "open house" comprising zoo volunteers, where a management tool, SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis will be used. One hopes that this management analysis brings about an awakening among the zookeepers. The elephantine tragedy at the Mysore zoo forces one to compare standards with an elephant orphanage, run to perfection, at Pinnawala in Sri Lanka.

Jumbo caring

From the Sri Lankan capital Colombo, the south-bound highway leads to the ancient city of Galle, before proceeding to the fishing town of Matara and the pilgrim centre of Ketaragama. Enroute, the seaside Colombo suburb of Dehiwalla is worth a stop. Visitors are greeted by lovely vistas of the plam-fringed beach. Close by is the Dehiwalla zoo, an exemplary centre for wildlife care in captivity. As one made an enjoyable tour of the facilities, a zoo attendant mentioned another unique animal care centre — an elephant "orphanage" at Pinnawala.

A two-hour drive Northeast takes you to the place, where one can watch more than 70 pachyderms housed in a spacious centre along the banks of the Maha Oya river. This orphanage was set up in 1975 when seven orphan jungle elephants required caring in a natural setting. Since then, it has been a haven for helpless, injured and homeless pachyderms. A blind tusker, Raja, and a limping little Sama, playful in spite of an amputated right foot, seemed to enjoy life along with the other babies, mothers and tuskers. The sight of the animals during bathing time at the river and while feeding underscores the care shown by the Sri Lankan zoo authorities. A captive breeding programme, monitored by veterinary experts, has successfully delivered over 25 calves.

The Pinnawala centre, with its vast expanse, will soon become the home of the space-strapped Colombo zoo. Zoological gardens around the world are meant to be organisations that truly protect wildlife and give fauna-lovers rare glimpses of endangered species.

While Hamburg boasts of its private `Hagenbeck's Tier Park', the one in Berlin has the city's central train station named after it. Singapore's facility is a visitor's delight, albeit a nocturnal one christened `Night Safari'. While Beijing has given the world the lovable Panda, the one in San Diego, California, amuses visitors from India with its special `Exotic Species' enclosure — the animal on exhibit here is the one that otherwise roams free around the dhobi ghats in India — the very common donkey! However, to be fair, zoo facilities showcase species to visitors who can otherwise visualise them only in the media.

In India, forest authorities have done exemplary work for wildlife care. Indian Forest Service officers in Orissa can pride themselves over the protection they have ensured for the salt-water crocodile and the endangered Olive Ridley turtle, while their counterpart in Tamil Nadu can be lauded for initiating a path-breaking programme of rest and recuperation for elephants in the State's temples.

The Tamil Nadu Government last year transported all the temple elephants in special vehicles to the Teppakkadu forests in the Nilgris. Veterinarians on this 15-day programme provided medical care to the jumbos. Trained assistants bathed and scrubbed the jumbos, applying healing ointments to the sores on the animals' legs that were hitherto fettered in chains. After a fortnight spent in a free and caring holiday atmosphere, the pachyderms returned to their temple duty. The programme was such a success that visitors to Teppakadu this November are in for a second visual treat of jumbo care.

Picture by the author

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