Indian zoos: just a stamp collection?

Will the new Reliance zoo meaningfully contribute to the four internationally accepted objectives?

Updated - December 02, 2022 04:51 pm IST

Published - December 02, 2022 10:22 am IST

A keeper feeds a six­-month­-old rescued elephant calf at the Assam State Zoo cum Botanical Garden in Guwahati.  

A keeper feeds a six­-month­-old rescued elephant calf at the Assam State Zoo cum Botanical Garden in Guwahati.   | Photo Credit: PTI

One of my earliest memories of animals in captivity is from the ’60s, of a polar bear lying atop a block of ice in the Madras Zoo, which was then located in the People’s Park. It was a sorry sight, with the animal panting in the tropical heat despite the comfort offered by the fast-melting ice.

Also read: Indian zoos: seeds of wildlife conservation

Another distinct memory is of seeing photos of tigons (progeny of a male tiger and a lioness), litigons (male lion and a female tigon) and ligers (male lion and a tigress). Much of this was due to deliberate attempts at hybridisation carried out in Alipore Zoo, Kolkata, in the ’60s and ’70s.

Even as a child, it occurred to me that these were not desirable things to do. Scientific principles guiding captive breeding of animals have since advanced a great deal.

Also read: Indian zoos: the good, bad and ugly

A modern zoo is not expected to have animals that won’t thrive in the local environment; artificially creating the required conditions is often a very complex and expensive task. There is now a much stronger recognition of the need for ensuring physical and behavioural (mental) welfare, and the genetic robustness of animals in captivity. This requires well-designed enclosures, behavioural enrichment and planned breeding programmes, which prevent inbreeding as well as cross-breeding across species and subspecies.

An African grey parrot shares a meal at the VOC Park Zoo in Coimbatore.

An African grey parrot shares a meal at the VOC Park Zoo in Coimbatore. | Photo Credit: PERIASAMY M.

Four objectives

The following are four internationally accepted objectives for zoos and captive animal breeding: conservation (programmes that assist the survival of wild populations); education (to increase the level of knowledge of the visitors about the animals); research (on aspects that are often very difficult or even impossible to conduct in the wild); recreation (to give visitors opportunities to observe wild animals up close).

India took a very important step to improve the management of zoos when it amended the Wild Life Protection Act in 1991 to establish the Central Zoo Authority as a statutory body of the Ministry of Environment and Forests. Of the 517 zoos and captive animal facilities listed on the CZA’s website, 368 have been derecognised, much of these being privately-owned circuses, mobile zoos and small facilities. The logic being that these facilities are not capable of fulfilling at least one of the four objectives that justify keeping wild animals in captivity.

A modern zoo should not exist only to entertain visitors. A zoo must have a mission statement describing its ideals and goals.

Pelicans splash in a pond at the National Zoological Park in New Delhi.

Pelicans splash in a pond at the National Zoological Park in New Delhi. | Photo Credit: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Need for a collection plan

Keeping animal records is very important: they help keep track of everything that happens with captive animals as well as what has happened in the past. They also allow easy sharing of information with other institutions, which is an absolute requirement for the management of species across zoos. Record keeping has improved a lot over the last couple of decades. The CZA and the Wildlife Institute of India have played an important role in ensuring this.

They should also develop a collection plan, or an analysis of their animal collection — both current and future — to guide acquisitions and dispositions. This means that zoos should not focus on having the most charismatic or endangered or rare species. Species should be chosen based on how they will contribute to the goals of each zoo and which animals they are able to care for. Zoos cannot be a random collection of species with unplanned breeding.

A red panda at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling.

A red panda at the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Zoos have to collaborate and function in a cooperative manner both in planning as well as in implementing many of their activities, especially those related to breeding and conservation. This can operate at several levels: eco-regional, State, national as well as international. This enables the sharing of technical expertise, experience and resources and importantly enables the management of a much larger number of animals. Zoos should have written policies that govern the acquisition and disposition of animals; the health and safety of animals, staff and visitors; veterinary care; education; conservation; research; ethics; staff management; public relations and marketing. Many Indian zoos need to improve the formulation and implemention of policies.

A debacle in the making?

Indian zoos have come a long way since the ‘60s. Those in Vandalur, Hyderabad, Darjeeling and the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, are all good examples of how they have aligned themselves to the four objectives of modern zoos. Even these institutions have a lot of scope for improvement, primarily with respect to their collection plan, planned breeding and training and welfare of their staff.

The undeniable fact is that most Indian zoos are largely focused on providing recreation and much of the breeding is unplanned. This needs to change, and the CZA has a crucial role to play.

Given this context, it is very worrying to read reports about Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom, which is being set up in Jamnagar. Touted as the world’s largest zoo, with an aim to have species from across the world, many of which would not be from the eco-region in which the facility is to be located. It looks very doubtful that this zoo will be able to meaningfully contribute to the four internationally accepted objectives. From the current reports it does look like it might end up more like a stamp collection, which would be a pity. Only time will tell.

The writer is CEO, Metastring Foundation and coordinator, Biodiversity Collaborative.

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