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The hyena has the last laugh

The wildlife conservation story notches another high at Visakhapatnam’s Indira Gandhi Zoological Park, where a striped hyena was born through captive breeding. As two-month-old Ayush prances around, the author recounts the painstaking effort that went into keeping him alive

January 14, 2017 12:15 am | Updated November 28, 2021 10:10 pm IST

A SURVIVOR’S TALE: “Wildlife experts look at Ayush’s survival as not just a victory for
the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park but for animal conservation globally.” Photo: K.R. Deepak

A SURVIVOR’S TALE: “Wildlife experts look at Ayush’s survival as not just a victory for the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park but for animal conservation globally.” Photo: K.R. Deepak

His play is always a frenzy; his gait a bit awkward. The puppy fat envelops his body, but the stripes are unmistakeable. All of two months, he is ever hungry, frequently growling for milk or minced chicken. As he holds the half-a-dozen hospital staff hostage with his demands, the realisation slowly dawns: this prima-donna act is justified, after all. Of a wait spanning over 90 days, Ayush is all that survives. The striped hyena cub made it, unlike his two siblings. Ayush is a living, thriving testimony to captive breeding, only the third success of its kind in India and the first for 40-year-old Indira Gandhi Zoological Park, Visakhapatnam.

The zoo’s four-roomed veterinary hospital that also has a rescue shelter for animals has been Ayush’s home for over two months ever since he was born. There he walks around, sure of safety, rarely sticking to the 4x4 feet cage meant for him. On his tender shoulders lies the burden of survival of his species.

Striped hyenas or Hyaena hyaena , a mammal of the Carnivora order and Hyaenidae family, were commonly found in the wild and bushy semi-arid pastoral lands of India, Central Asia, North and East Africa, West Asia and Turkey till two decades ago. One of the three varieties of hyenas in the world, it is now just one step away from being endangered, two steps away from being critically endangered and three from being extinct in the wild going by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources’ (IUCN) Red List published in 2016. To be precise, Ayush’s kind is “near threatened” on the extinction charts, numbering between 5,000 and 14,000 globally in 1998 — and given that the “near threatened” categorisation was effected in 2008 from a “lower risk, near threatened” status in 2000, striped hyenas could be closer to 5,000 than 14,000 in number now. In India, they were mercilessly hunted down over the years for foraging into graves due to lack of a food source in their habitat. Which makes the only cub who survived out of a litter of three born to Samrat and Swathi at the Vizag zoological park a success story like no other.

Swathi and Samrat, Ayush’s mother and father, at the Zoological Park.

Swathi and Samrat, Ayush’s mother and father, at the Zoological Park.

 

A miracle is bred

Swathi and Samrat were the first striped hyenas in Vizag zoo brought from Kanpur Zoological Park in February 2015. Though she had conceived twice before giving birth to the latest litter in the Vizag zoo, lack of her natural environs, where a hyena yearns to live in seclusion during the gestation period, had got the better of her, forcing Swathi to kill the cubs born each time. The zoo has a footfall of 300 per day, making her irritable, anxious and more shy than she usually is.

This time too, it was a tough pregnancy for her. But the zoo staff were not ready to let history repeat. As Ayush goofs around, unaware of the miracle of his own existence, the zoo staff narrate the painstaking effort it took to help him survive, right from the date of mating, June 21 (which is noted in the zoo logbook), through the days of Swathi’s three-month gestation period, the delivery on November 4, and the two months since.

 

G. Peddanna Tata, the 50-year-old animal caretaker who has spent half his lifetime in the zoological park, was the only one to whose voice Swathi and Samrat responded, and hence he was instrumental in the early days of gestation. A small burrow inside the hyena moat, which did not face the walkway for visitors, became Swathi’s home as she carried the cubs in her belly for 90 days. “She would go into the burrow and rest her belly on the lining of sand strewn there for cushioning,” says Tata as he stands near the moat and glances at Swathi-Samrat. Doctors at the zoo had given Swathi regular doses of amino acid and vitamins over and above an increase in food supply of one kilogram of beef per day. She was comfortable, but that was not enough to keep her away from stress for long. “I saw three cubs soon after they were born. But after a few hours only two were around. She ate the third,” he says.

On November 5, the zoo staff was forced to remove the other two cubs including Ayush from the mother and secure them in the veterinary hospital, located half a kilometre away from the moat. Separation from the mother brought in other challenges for the cubs. Their immune system turned weak as they could not feed on the mother’s milk. “The immune system of cubs is at risk and 90 to 95 per cent of the time they die of infection. It was a tightrope walk,” says Dr. K. Pavani, a young veterinary doctor at the hospital. This, despite the fact that a sterile environment was maintained in the hospital to prevent infection. “We used to cover our mouths with sterilised masks and pick up the cubs only with gloved hands for a month,” she says.

The extreme caution and sanitised setting couldn’t prevent another casualty: Ayush’s brother died after 24 days. The cub had developed a urinary tract infection and was unable to pass urine. “In the ultra-sonogram we could see that his bladder was full. After suffering a lot of pain for two days, he died on November 28,” Pavani recollects.

But Ayush was a fighter. Ever since he was brought to the hospital he showed a zest for life, the staff remember. “He used to show healthy signs as he had more milk than his brother and responded to medication and touch easily,” says S. Ravi Babu, resident zoologist and wildlife conservation enthusiast.

Dr. K.Pavane, veterinary doctor, with the young hyena.

Dr. K.Pavane, veterinary doctor, with the young hyena.

 

Loving care

Experts at the zoo suffered a few scares through the ex-situ (outside the natural habitat) captive-breeding process. “After his brother died, Ayush refused to eat for two days. We were worried,” says Pavani. But Babu had a plan which worked. The staff placed a puppy-shaped toy in Ayush’s cage and he took a liking for it. Perhaps, the hole left by his sibling’s absence was filled, albeit temporarily. But the joy did not last long as Pavani diagnosed a digestive tract infection in Ayush’s system. He was administered anti-diarrhoeal drugs at once and an anxious wait followed. Pavani, who resides three kilometres away from the zoo, would come every night to check on the cub; the other zoo staff practically lived in the hospital. “It was impossible to leave the little one. You get worried when you are away only to come back to check on him,” Babu reminisces.

Ayush responded positively to all the love showered on him. “The cub which died was dull but Ayush was up and about in no time and he was always hungry,” says Pavani, as the now two-month-plus hyena tugs at her palazzo pants. From drinking 10 to 20 ml of artificial milk per day during the first week of his stay in the hospital, he graduated to drinking 20 to 30 ml daily soon. Deprived of Swathi’s milk, its substitute for Ayush came at an exorbitant price. Royal Canin, which he drank four times a day during the first three weeks, cost about Rs.1,400 per 400 gm packet of the powdered milk. As the brand went off the shelves in Vizag, the staff shifted him to Beaphar Lactol, priced at Rs.670 for a 200-gm pack. The zoological park’s annual budget of Rs.50 lakh came in handy.

Now, Ayush eats chicken at noon along with his milk. The staff started feeding him solid food soon after he turned two months on January 4.

A blow for captive breeding

Wildlife experts look at Ayush’s survival as not just a victory for the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park but for animal conservation globally. Though experts generally prefer long-term conservation measures such as preserving the natural habitat, modern techniques such as captive breeding have in the past saved animal and bird species across the globe from near-extinction. The most well-known case comes from China, of the Pere David’s deer ( Elaphurus davidianus ). Now extinct in the wild according to the IUCN’s Red List, the species survives because of a timely and successful captive-breeding exercise. From being hunted down to just 120 in China in 1993, the deer’s numbers went up steadily to 2,000 by 2008. The success stories extend to the world of birds. The pink pigeon ( Nesoenas mayeri ) of Mauritius, attractive for its pinkish grey beak and dark brown back, was brought back from “critically endangered” in 1994 to the less lethal “endangered” status in 2013 through captive breeding. Its numbers have gone up from a mere 10 in 1990 to 50 in 1993, 300 in 2000 and 370-380 individuals in 2011, the Red List indicates.

 

Closer home, pygmy hog ( Porcula salvania ), the smallest wild hog in the world which is found mostly in northern West Bengal and north-western Assam, has bounced back from its “critically endangered” status in 1996 only by dint of captive breeding. Up to 75 such hogs have been bred in Assam by 2015, according to IUCN data. In a similar ex-situ exercise, Chennai’s Madras Crocodile Bank Trust & Centre for Herpetology has been breeding gharials ( Gavialis gangeticus ), a fish-eating variety of crocodiles found in India, since 1989. The in-situ (in habitat) breeding of olive ridley turtles ( Lepidochelys olivacea ) on the country’s southern and eastern shores has also been well documented.

 

The conservation debate

For conservationists, however, the best captive-breeding experiment (ex or in situ) is one that allows acclimatisation of beasts to the wild, a process not many, including the Vizag zoological park, undertake. “The wild is where they belong. So the captive breeder should first soft-introduce the being to a cordoned-off wildlife space which can be monitored, and then breach the cordon to allow the animal to drift into the wild on its own. Maintaining or increasing the population in the wild should be a breeder’s ultimate aim,” says Farida Tampal, World Wide Fund for Nature-India’s State director for Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.

Others, however, deem ex-situ breeding as not a viable option for wildlife conservation. “The gene pool of animals which are captive-bred become less diverse, reducing the chances of survival of their species. It also takes a long time for an outside-the-site captive-bred animal to adjust to the wild. The soft introduction itself might not suit the animals and there is over a 50 per cent chance that they will not make it in the wild. Conservation in the longer run can be about a strict monitoring of flora and fauna in the wild. Modern techniques, including drone tracking, could be employed for it,” says Sumit Banerjee of Indian Wildlife Club.

While Ayush will not be let into the wild, the Vizag zoological park authorities are hopeful of turning things around going ahead. “We are aiming at releasing animals into the wild. It might take time but this is on the cards,” says B. Vijaya Kumar, the curator.

As Ayush gets ready for his evening nap, the attention shifts to Kumari, a white tigress at the fag end of her gestation period. Indira Gandhi Zoological Park is bracing for another ex-situ battle. Will Kumari add to the population of two male and three female white tigers currently residing in the zoological park? Maybe. Maybe not. But it’s the effort that counts.

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