Zoos should not be perceived as places of dread where animals are imprisoned and neglected. Here’s a plea to look at the bigger picture.

Baba Dioum contemplated, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand.” Perhaps that's the reason the greatest conservators of all times have been hunters like Jim Corbett.

Nature depletion to most of us has been reduced to threats of global warming. Our country's education system has succeeded only to paint a doomsday scenario and has failed to form a bond between the young and the great outdoors. With the forest cover depleted to a minimum, animals poached to extinction and holidays in wildlife sanctuaries the interest (or the privilege) of a few — to link with nature seems like a distant possibility. Zoos and zoological parks remain the only places for the multitudes to connect with wildlife and be sensitised towards it.

Traditionally, zoos have provided an economic form of recreation for people from various strata of society, income and educational levels, ages and socio-economic backgrounds. They offer a large vista of possibilities to educate and sensitise people. According to CEE India, “In India there are more than 150 zoos, and they attract as many as 50 million visitors annually. Zoos' potential for making people of all ages aware of the threats to the global ecology is unlimited.”

It's difficult to spot animals in the wild. Many villagers living on jungle fringes pass their lives without seeing a wild animal. The largest chunk of visitors to small town zoos like Udaipur's Gulab Bagh is rural.

Jerry Mander wrote that after sometime, when you ask a child “Where do oranges grow?” He'll reply, “In the supermarket.”

Disconnect with the real

Today, children have a wide disconnect with Nature. An attractive place is required for nature education that is sure to stimulate interest and provide a competition to internet, television and playstations. No one can remain unmoved after seeing an animal at close quarters. Zoos are a place where children get to see the animals, which they've heard of in the stories. It gives form to their imagination and opens a new world of curiosity. Many grow up to become crusaders of wildlife protection.

Colombo's Dehiwela Zoo inspires awe and displays the delightful marvels of Nature. It has a thumping selection of animals including albino cobras, black jaguars and an albino crow! The vast compound with towering tropical trees is complete with a bird aviary, butterfly garden, aquarium, serpentarium, museum and zoo library. There are education programmes, performances of animals and provision for kids' birthday parties. The zoo hospital does research and provides veterinary training.

In India, Reuben David, a champion of wildlife, created the Ahmedabad zoo. People came from near and far to see this man who could go inside the cages of lions and tigers. During his time, Ahmedabad zoo became one of the most remarkable zoos of India and contributed substantially to conservation and research.

Animals are exchanged between zoos of the world. The Maharaj of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh made history when he captured a white tiger in the wild. In time, generations of this white tiger have spread across the world.

The government has failed to implement wildlife laws and provide proper enforcement response. Political commitment to prevention of wildlife crime, human encroachment in protected areas and habitat destruction has remained a low priority. Man-animal conflict continues to intensify. The Wildlife Protection Society of India estimated that at least 3,189 leopards were killed since 1994 to 2010. Leopards are targeted and brutally killed as they attack livestock and enter human habitation. “For every tiger skin, there are at least seven leopard skins in the haul.” The wild animals need protection.

Some animal activists talk about banning the zoos. What is the alternate plan to save various critically endangered species? Banning zoos, for all we know, might accelerate their extinction. Zoos provide breeding places for the species that face a threat of extinction in the jungles. When a species is confined to one place it faces a threat of being wiped away by a disease, famine or epidemic.

Many species are bred in zoos and reintroduced in their natural habitats. The multiplying numbers in captivity of Manipur's Dancing deer, a highly endangered species, provide an insurance against its extinction in the forests.

The inconsequential zoo of Udaipur, which was on the verge of closing down, has provided many captive-bred Cheetals to be released in the wild. The zoo-bred crocodiles have been released in Udaipur lakes, from where they'd vanished.

Although it may seem “cruel” from human perspective to encage animals, there are many advantages in it for the animals. “Indian Leopards are estimated to live up to about nine years of age. When kept in captivity, this lifespan increases dramatically to well over 20 years. This increase is due to an abundance of food and water, a lack of threat from hunters or locals and prompt medical care.”

Creating the natural

The issue should not be to ban the ill-maintained zoos but to put more investment into creating naturalised environment, keep animals healthy and well-fed, facilitate captive breeding programs, carry out researches, restore endangered species, understand animal behaviour, improve animal husbandry, develop conservation initiatives and educate the visitors. Zoos, a sustainable way of conservation, provide life-system education and have immense educational and research value.

We need to take a holistic and not puritan approach confined to the narrow perspective of “cruelty against animals” defined by human standards. The real need is to see the broader perspective if we really want to conserve that which we've already destroyed to a great extent.