A zoo committee is working on how to replace beef for the Bannerghatta Biological Park's carnivores

Amid one of the worst crises Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP) has ever faced, Karnataka's top veterinary scientists have been assigned a task that can at best be described as distracting, and at worst, somewhat absurd, given the circumstances.

Snatching time between attending to 16 tigers down with gastroenteritis, a “zoo health committee”, comprising senior veterinarians from the Veterinary College and the Institute of Animal Health and Veterinary Biologicals, has to now help the State Government find a solution to a self-inflicted problem, the proposed ban on cattle slaughter.

In anticipation of the Karnataka Prevention of Slaughter and Preservation of Cattle Bill, scientists are now concocting an alternative diet for the BBP's carnivores: one that has the advantages of beef but one comprising mutton and pork.

“We have to arrive at the right proportions of these to achieve the necessary calorific and nutritive value as well as the cost effectiveness,” said S. Yathiraj, former dean of the Veterinary College, who is part of the committee.

But it is not so simple, according to BBP officials and wildlife experts.

While mutton will double the cost of feeding the carnivores from Rs. 1.3 lakh to Rs. 3.4 lakh a day (for around 1,300 kg of meat), pork is unsuitable in many ways, said a BBP official.

It may bring down the cost of meat, but it is high in fat content. Moreover, raw pork is infested with parasites — primarily tapeworm — which would be dangerous to the big cats, said Shomita Mukherjee, a biologist specialising in the ecology of felines in the wild.

She is concerned about the drastic change in their diet. “Big cats are notoriously picky about food and often reject something they are not accustomed to,” she said.

The beef ban becomes more significant in the wake of the salmonella and E. coli infection that has killed two tigers and sickened another 16, one of them critically. The zoo has eliminated from the big cats' diet chicken and raw eggs, which veterinarians suspect to be the source of the disease.

The virulent and almost drug-resistant strain of bacteria that the tigers contracted, scientists surmised, could have its roots in drug-intensive poultry farming practices that had made the pathogens tolerant to various drugs. With the removal of the weekly meal of poultry and egg, the quantum of mutton needed will increase, as will the cost.

It is not just BBP's 42 tigers and 84 lions that are fed beef; a whole range of animals depend on this nutritive and cheap meat: leopards, jackals, crocodiles, vultures and certain owls, said a BBP official.

“If the Slaughter Bill is passed, we will have to demand financial support of Rs. 10 crore annually from the Government just for food for zoos in the State,” said an official from the Zoo Authority of Karnataka. This will be a substantial increase from the allocation of a paltry Rs. 1.4 crore a year to eight zoos in the State. The alternative to make up for the increase in running cost would be to increase the zoo's primary source of revenue: gate collections. But an increase in the entry fee, according to BBP officials, will cause nothing short of a “public outcry”.

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