Thrissur Zoological Park | The wild ones are at home here

When commissioned later this year, the Thrissur Zoological Park at Puthur in Kerala will be India’s first zoo designed from the ground up by a professional who specialises in this field, claims the State government. Mini Muringatheri explores the 350-acre area, and the all-natural ‘enclosures’ that offer the least stress for the animals

Updated - February 08, 2024 04:00 pm IST

Published - January 12, 2024 12:03 am IST

Leo, the leopard cub at the Zoological Park. 

Leo, the leopard cub at the Zoological Park.  | Photo Credit: K.K. Najeeb

On June 18, 2023, tapping workers found a critically injured leopard cub abandoned in a rubber plantation at Ayiloor in the Nenmara Forest Division of Palakkad district in Kerala. It had injuries all over its body, including multiple spinal fractures. There were worms in the vomitus. It was weak and suffered frequent seizures.  

The six-month-old cub was rushed to the clinical medicine wing of the College of Veterinary and Animal Sciences, Mannuthy, 43  kilometres away. From the near-death condition it had arrived in, it limped back to life in a few weeks. However, the seizures continued. Considering its poor health, veterinarians recommended shifting it to the Thrissur Zoological Park at Puthur, which has a full-fledged hospital with a 24-hour doctor service. There, they named it Leo.

“Nobody thought Leo would survive when he was rescued,” says R. Keerthi, director of the Thrissur Zoological Park, with a smile, as she watches Leo’s acrobatics with a toy hanging from the roof of the spacious enclosure in the zoo hospital. In between, little Leo poses for photos, appearing to thoroughly enjoy stardom.  

Vaiga, the tiger, at the Thrissur Zoological Park. 

Vaiga, the tiger, at the Thrissur Zoological Park.  | Photo Credit: K.K.Najeeb

Leo is among four big cats that arrived in the first phase of the Thrissur Zoological Park, to be commissioned later this year. Vaiga and Durga, two tigers who were notorious for cattle-lifting, and Rudra, a dreaded maneater — all three from the Wayanad district — are the other three big cats at the zoo.

The Kerala government claims that this is India’s first zoo to be designed by an expert who specialises in integrating animals, people, and plants, through design. Jon Coe, an Australian landscape architect, has a portfolio of 160 projects, including 85 zoos. He has also worked on botanical gardens, theme parks, and national parks across 15 countries. 

Among the largest zoos in Asia, Thrissur Zoological Park is coming up across 350 acres of land in Puthur, about 12 km from Thrissur town, on a budget of ₹307 crore. The project will showcase wild animals and birds in their natural surroundings. “It is like a managed wildlife setting,” says Keerthi. The precinct is also meant for research, conservation, and captive breeding of animals and birds endemic to and endangered in the Western Ghats, according to Keerthi.  

By February, all animals and birds from the present Thrissur zoo will be shifted to Puthur. In addition, animals will be shipped in from other parts of India and overseas in a phased manner.  

Taking care of Leo and the other big cats is a team of women zookeepers: C.K. Reshma , Krishna K. Chandran, M.R. Shobi , P.C. Sajeena and K.N. Neshita. “The big cats identify us and respond to our calls. We feed them and clean their cages,” says Shobi with pride.  

Blackbuck deaths spark outrage 

The present zoo in Thrissur, located in the heart of the city, celebrated its centenary in 1985. Tragedy struck in its 100th year when street dogs crashed the enclosure of blackbucks,(krishna mrugam in Malayalam), and killed a few. The shocking incident provoked the eminent modern Malayalam poet Vyloppilly Sreedhara Menon, then a frequent zoo-goer, to pen his famous poem ‘Krishna Mrugangal’ that spoke about the tragedy. Although it has a lush green campus, its 13.5 acres for the 450 animals accommodated in it, is small.  

The killing of blackbucks sparked widespread criticism and gave momentum to the demand for shifting the zoo to a more spacious place. An organisation, Friends of Zoo, was born in 1992, whose constant pressure over the last three decades is now coming to fruition.  

Also read | Leopard sighting at Ponmudi: panel seeks report from Collector

“If wild animals are kept captive for the entertainment of human beings, we have the responsibility to provide them a suitable habitat,” says M. Peethambaran, secretary of Friends of Zoo and a Gandhian. He quotes the Mahatma to say that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be gauged from the way it treats its animals.  

There were many hurdles even after 350 acres of reserve forest land was identified in Puthur for the zoological park project in the mid-1990s. There soon arose a dispute between the Zoo and Museum department and the Forest department over the proposed zoological park’s ownership. The stand-off lasted 17 years until the Oommen Chandy government (2011-16) gave the charge of the zoological park to the Forest department in 2012.  

A designer joins in  

A turning point came when Aussie zoo designer Coe came to attend a seminar in Delhi. The then State Forest Minister K.B. Ganesh Kumar invited him to Puthur as a State guest in March 2012. Coe is known for his revolutionary ideas for animal habitats which break with the conventional models.  

“The then 70-something designer camped at Puthur for many days. He walked the entire length and breadth of the tropical mountainous area with very difficult terrain at least eight or nine times,” recalls Peethambaran.  

Coe was impressed by the mountain terrain, its biodiversity, topography, and elevations. He prepared a detailed design for the project, which was approved in 2022 by the Central Zoo Authority that functions under the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.    

Chief Minister Chandy inaugurated the work in 2013. The Central Public Works department was given charge of construction. The work gathered momentum once the Pinarayi Vijayan government, in 2016, allotted funds by including the project under the Kerala Infrastructure Investment Fund Board (KIIFB).  

An ambitious move   

Kerala’s Revenue Minister K. Rajan, who is also the MLA of Ollur constituency within which Puthur falls, considered the work prestigious. “It isn’t just another zoo. It has been designed with the concept of ‘landscape immersion’. The entire area will appear like a forest. Animals should be comfortable just as in their original habitat and the visitors should feel that they are watching them in the forest. It’s a thematic zoo with a variety of zones simulating the parent environment of various creatures,” the Minister said.  

Coe believes that animals shouldn’t be separated from their habitat. Keerthi says that the enclosures are being done in a way that there no human interventions like fences, kraals, or buildings. Animals move about their enclosures, which are segregated by means of dry moats and/or artificial or natural rocks. Specially designed barrier fences with hotwire systems provide a second layer of security, she adds. 

“A lush green canopy covers the entire enclosure making it a completely natural experience for the animals and visitors. Visitors will not even feel that a barrier exists. Visitor paths and viewing spaces are kept at lower levels from the enclosures to reduce stress on the animals,” she explains.  

Each enclosure is backed by animal-specific supporting amenities such as holding pens, exercise yards, and keeper amenities. Around 20,000 plants have been nurtured here to make the campus green with the support of the Kerala Forest Research Institute.  

“In the era of climate change and genetic extinction, zoos can act as a genetic bank of highly endangered and vulnerable species. The prime mandate of a zoo is conservation,” Keerthi notes. Currently, only a third of the total area has been developed as a zoological park. In future they are planning safaris covering both herbivores and carnivores. Bamboo and cashew plantations cover the remaining area.  

Zoning the land  

From Kanha zone for big cats (leopard, tiger, and Asiatic lion) to Zululand (the dry habitat and large rocky terrain resembling Zululand in Africa) and Silent Valley zone for Nilgiri langur and lion-tailed macaque, the zoo has been divided into nine zones and a conservation area, according to curators Aswini Krishna and Akhil V.   

“Each zone is characterised by a miniature version of its parent territory. For example, in Zululand, the buildings are designed with the iconic vernacular conical style of the Zulu ethnic group. The animals in this area will be native to Africa: hippopotamus, giraffe, zebra, eland, and ostrich. A boardwalk over the hippo reed bed is an attractive architectural element of the area. The reed bed acts as a natural water-filtering element. The banks of the ponds are treated like eroded clay banks which resemble the swamps of Zululand,” explains Aswini.  

There is a bear zone, which will display sloth bears and Himalayan black bears. The Shola grassland zone will display the Nilgiri Tahr, raptor aviary, and grassland birds, including pheasants and kites. The landscape, plant species, microclimate, everything resembles the Shola forest. There is a grassland zone exclusively for wild dogs, which include jackal, dhole, and hyena.  

Viewing pockets   

Visitors here can walk the path entwining habitats or take a tram ride. They can observe the animals from specific viewing shelters and pockets. Some viewing pockets are designed like keyhole views between giant boulders.  Natural rocks, which are available on site, are retained and incorporated in the zoo design. The spaces are designed according to animal science and their behavioural aspects.  

A biodiversity centre here will showcase a variety of animals and a breeding facility built across three interlinking levels.  “It is designed in such a way that the entire building will merge with the terrain. Here, animals will be exhibited in the concept of evolution sequencing from invertebrates to vertebrates,” says Akhil.  

At the first level, there will be diurnal insects like amphibians, reptiles, freshwater fishes (aquarium and terrarium), while at level two, nocturnal mammals and birds will be exhibited. Off-exhibit breeding and holding facilities are at the third level.  

These exhibits are sequenced in a day-night transition mode — dedicated diurnal and nocturnal themes with tree houses (Erumadam) in both day and night areas. Animals will be allowed to roam free across their exhibit and off-exhibit by means of dedicated raceways, tunnels, and hung wooden dead logs, notes Akhil.  

There is ample space for parking and orientation for visitors. A solar roof is provided over the covered walkway. A large existing rock is retained in the middle of the courtyard.  

The people of Puthur, a high-range village with 16,000-odd families, are looking at the project with much expectation.  “A daily footfall of about 8,000 during weekdays and 25,000 on weekends is expected when it is fully operational. This will provide a lot of opportunities for the people of the locality and will lead to socio-economic development of the village. Land prices in Puthur and neighbouring places have already gone up. The roads to the village are also getting upgraded,” says Mini Unnikrishnan, Puthur panchayat president.

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