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Sunday, January 14, 2001

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Where past overshadows present

With zoos under scrutiny after the Nandankanan tragedy and the Hyderabad killing, the Kolkata zoo finds that it is no exception to the general feeling that the utility of the institution needs to be re-examined, writes GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN.

KOLKATA'S Alipore Zoological Garden opened in 1875. The ravages of time are apparent as one takes a stroll along its many winding paths on a warm winter's morning.

For someone like me who grew up in Kolkata, the zoo holds fond memories. One pertains to the garden's picturesqueness. There was a lush greenery with an abundance of colourful flowers and an umbrella of soothing shade. The neatly painted seats with cool canopies over them were a welcome sight that dotted little lanes meandering along a large lake.

Today, these are missing. The zoo looks dull. The sparkle and spirit seem to have disappeared. The pathways are unkempt and the seats are broken, and the air of decay - whatever be the progress and development that one is told about - is depressing.

And the zoo's first superintendent, R.B. Sanyal - whose life is almost synonymous with the early history of the garden - must be turning in his grave. He was a medical student and often referred to as the father of zoo management. His book on the subject is still considered authoritative.

If the work is hardly read, Sanyal himself is a forgotten figure. Yes, there is one detailed biography in Bengali by Dilip K. Mittra, who is now translating it into English. One then hopes that Sanyal and his mission - the zoo, of course - would be better known.

What we do know at the moment is that the Alipore Zoological Garden literally grew out of a menagerie which the then Governor- General Arthur Wellesley established around 1800 in his summer residence at Barrackpore on the outskirts of Kolkata.

The objective was to study the animal wealth of South Asia, and it was not just an ambitious project, but probably the first of its kind anywhere in the world.

That Wellesley was transferred before he could do much about it is tragic. But the Barrackpore menagerie served another purpose - that of a public zoo. Its collection was impressive, as the paintings and writings of the time indicate.

Charles D'Oyly's 1820 watercolours show a bear, a lion and a pelican. Fanny Parks, the lively wife of a British official, wrote in 1824 about "the remarkably fine tigers and cheetahs". Five years later, French naturalist Jaquemont noted "bears of two species, a wild ass, a gibbon, musk deer, an ostrich and a one- horned rhino".

Despite this variety, there were some who felt the need for a bigger zoological garden. The July 1841 issue of the Calcutta Journal of Natural History, for instance, voices the importance of this. Although the Jardin de Plantes had been formed only 40 years ago in France, and the Zoological Society of London a mere 15 years ago, these had such an impact on the Kolkata society that it was convinced that the city must have something as impressive. Writers stressed that animals must be brought together not just for an exhibition, but also to gain an insight into their behaviour.

Finally, the Alipore Zoo opened its gates in 1875, and most inmates of the Barrackpore menagerie - including a giant tortoise which is still around and is said to be 250 years old - were transferred to the new location in Kolkata. Two years later, Sanyal began recording his observations, and they tell us so much about animal peculiarities and food habits in captivity.

Sanyal also studied breeding patterns, and some of his advice is still followed and with remarkable results, says the present Zoo Director A. K. Das.

Alipore was one of the first to have bred giraffes and white tigers, one of the first to have cross-bred animals to produce tigons and litigons. The garden also brought back from virtual extinction the Manipur Brow-Antlered Deer.

Yet, the zoo's problems never seem to go away. It has no space to expand, and still exists on the 45 acres given to it a 100-odd years ago. The zoos in Chennai, Lucknow and New Delhi have tens of acres more than the one in Kolkata.

Das, who has been with the garden for more than three decades, the last two as director, spoke in 1985 about a Government plan to shift the zoo to a larger area outside the city. But 15 years later, the plan remains just a piece of paper.

"Even if we were to move to a better place, where are the animals to display?" Das asks. "Since the Wildlife (Protection) Act of 1972 forbids transactions, we cannot buy an animal from a dealer. We cannot even procure it from the wild. We can only go in for an exchange with another zoo, and this again entails a complicated procedure. We have no choice but to breed, and worse, in-breed, and this is certainly unhealthy".

A question arises here. Cannot the act be amended to allow a zoo to get an animal from the wild? Das once said that this was the only way to keep a zoo alive and attractive, and also to save some of the species from extinction.

His view might have found favour now, but for the highly preventable tiger deaths at Orissa's Nandankanan Zoo, and the savage skinning of a tigress at the Hyderabad Zoo. These ghastly incidents have led to some rethinking. Are the animals really safe in a zoo? Even if they are, do they serve any function?

With the advent of television, which beams splendid pictures of wildlife, zoos (and even circuses) are no longer relevant as centres of exhibition. It is also argued that few people who visit a zoo actually learn anything. To them, it is fun, frolic and a time for picnic.

But zoos do play a role in breeding and in research on animal behaviour. Which can always be undertaken without the frill of a large garden. Das agrees and avers that breeding ought to be the aim of a zoo (though it can be difficult among some animals and in some situations), not public display.

The Alipore Zoo's breeding programme definitely ran into a rough patch when the road on which it is located became busier, (thanks to the new Hooghly Bridge) and, to an extent, the star hotel across the street began operations.

Despite these constraints, the Alipore Zoo has made some progress in breaking and in other aspects.

Open air enclosures have been or are being built for elephants, tigers and bears.

The one for the giraffes allows clear viewing of these majestic creatures, and as one returns to the city's din and dust the picture of these animals remains etched in memory.

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