Wildlife in concrete jungles

Bindu Shajan Perappadan | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on June 17, 2016
No Noah’s ark: Following the death of 33 deer after drain water flooded their enclosure at Delhi’s National Zoological Park in February, the Central Zoo Authority remarked that there was a need to run a “tighter ship”. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

No Noah’s ark: Following the death of 33 deer after drain water flooded their enclosure at Delhi’s National Zoological Park in February, the Central Zoo Authority remarked that there was a need to run a “tighter ship”. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar   -  The Hindu

Born to be wild: There is a growing view that zoos should undertake breeding programmes only when there is a real possibility for reintroduction into the wild. Photo: V V Krishnan

Born to be wild: There is a growing view that zoos should undertake breeding programmes only when there is a real possibility for reintroduction into the wild. Photo: V V Krishnan   -  The Hindu

The spate of tragic incidents at zoos has reignited the debate surrounding the relevance of such enclosures and the laws governing them

February 14: The Capital, much like several other parts of the world, dressed itself in red and drowned in the heady perfume of love.

On the same day, in a centrally located, 176-acre green island in the city, there was an undetected, fatal leak.

Drain water had swamped the spotted deer enclosure at the National Zoological Park (Delhi Zoo). This ‘deadly spill’ is cited as one of the possible causes of death in its deer population. The other is rabies spread by mongoose bites. The zoo initially claimed that the death toll stood at 16. After an inspection by senior officials from the Union Environment Ministry, it was confirmed that this model zoo had lost 33 of its 120 deer in the tragedy.

Delhi Zoo officials admit that the deaths took them by surprise and they initially thought the deer died from drinking contaminated water. They, however, maintain that a “tight follow-up has arrested any further advance of the killer rabies (a post-mortem found this to be the cause of death).”

After a preliminary visit and enquiry, members of the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) and Indian Veterinary Research Institute (IVRI) had observed that the zoo officials could have run a “tighter ship”.

“Samples of the animals were sent to IVRI, which confirmed death due to rabies, but there is no confirmation that it was caused by mongoose bites (as suggested by zoo authorities),” an Environment Ministry official says.

He is also unhappy that the follow-up process currently in use for vaccination against rabies is too slow.

“We started vaccinating the animals in batches of 5-6 and will soon cover the entire herd. Along with the animals, their handlers are also getting shots and they have been advised that it is mandatory for them to wear safety gear while entering the enclosure,” says Delhi Zoo curator RA Khan.

Stressing that animal welfare involves more than just the satisfaction of physical needs or absence of injury or disease, BK Gupta, a member of zoo regulator CZA, says that a team of vets was “assessing what went wrong and how it can be prevented.

Trading wild charges

The Delhi Zoo houses over 1,350 animals, which includes 130 species of animals and birds from around the world. It is also a part of the CZA’s conservation breeding programme for the Royal Bengal Tiger, Indian Rhino, Swamp Deer, Asiatic Lion, Red Jungle Fowl and Asiatic Lion.

In its endeavour to create a “home” for wildlife in the midst of a concrete jungle, the Delhi zoo shares a host of challenges with its peers elsewhere in the world. In fact, globally the very relevance of a zoo is being questioned and the laws governing it are being re-examined. While this debate itself is decades old, zoo experts point to the dramatic increase in our understanding of wild animal biology and behaviour over the years.

“The very existence of zoos, their role in education and the conservation of endangered species is being questioned with surprising regularity throughout the world,” says Shubhobroto Ghosh, author of the Indian Zoo Inquiry report and the book Dreaming in Calcutta and Channel Islands.

Why zoos?

In 1998, a public interest litigation was filed at Calcutta High Court, under the aegis of the People for Animals Calcutta, against the conditions in which animals and birds were housed at Calcutta Zoo. This was a rare case globally, one in which a non-governmental organisation had sued a government-operated zoo. Following the PIL, for the first time in the history of the more than century-old Calcutta Zoo, the shackles of the elephants were removed, open-air enclosures were created and companions were sourced for the inmates.

But the larger question is: “Can zoos perform a role in conservation and education, as they so feverishly emphasise?” asks Ghosh, who in 2001 began visiting zoos across India to record the conditions in them.

While zoos do educate in their way, this role is rather limited, both in India and elsewhere in the world, he says.

His visits to facilities across three continents have shown him that western zoos are not better than Indian ones, although there is a general assumption that Indian zoos are worse.

Referring to Delhi Zoo, in particular, and the recent deer deaths there, he says that a “major concern is the continued and unchecked breeding of animals in zoos, which leads to a multiplicity of problems”, as witnessed recently, with Axis Deer dying in large numbers.

“Uncontrolled and irresponsible breeding of animals in zoos also leads to morally bankrupt and obnoxious actions like the culling of Marius, the two-year-old healthy giraffe who was shot dead and then fed to lions at Copenhagen Zoo in 2014. While Marius’s case made headlines, hundreds of animals are killed on the sly in zoos across the world, including some of the most famous ones,” he says.

Another worrying trend he flags is the opposition perpetuated by zoos to hybrid animals like tigers of mixed subspecies origin (Siberian X Sumatran or Siberian X Bengal) on dubious scientific grounds, given that several biologists are revisiting the whole idea of the nature of species and subspecies. Zoos everywhere are not doing enough to maintain minimum welfare standards, he cautions.

Feral manifesto

However, one positive development noted by Ghosh and other animal rights activists is the growing public awareness, which in turn is forcing zoos to become more accountable. This is exemplified by the recent decision of SeaWorld in San Diego, US, to stop the captive breeding of orcas (killer whales) following a massive backlash triggered by the film Blackfish. Exploring the issues surrounding the death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010 after a male orca dragged her into the water and mauled her, the documentary raised important questions about the practice of keeping killer whales in captivity.

Closer home, similar change is in the air. “After twenty years of investigative work and campaigning, Calcutta Snake Park was closed on December 5, 2015. This is a monumental victory for both conservation and animal welfare, considering that this zoo was keeping animals in substandard conditions and indulging in illegal wildlife trade,” says Ghosh.

The need of the hour, experts agree, is the infusion of compassion and professional care that meets the physiological and behavioural needs of captive animals. Enclosures have to be designed intelligently, ensuring the safety and wellbeing of both animals and the viewing public.

Nobody wants a repeat of the recent incident at a zoo in Cincinnati, Ohio (US), where a 17-year-old male gorilla called Harambe was shot and killed after a boy accidentally entered his enclosure.

“There will always be a multiplicity of opinion on zoos, ranging from calls for complete closure to reformation. My view is that zoos will serve their purpose better by turning into rescue centres for abused wildlife and should undertake breeding programmes only when there is a genuine possibility for reintroduction in the wild. In short, it is simply not on to stick animals in cages and claim conservation and education benefits,” says Ghosh.

Worldwide, too, experts advocate “five freedoms” for the welfare of animals in captivity: Freedom from thirst/ hunger/ malnutrition; freedom from thermal and physical discomfort; freedom from pain/ injury/ diseases; freedom to express natural behaviour; and freedom from fear and distress.

Published on June 17, 2016
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