How zoo animals in India are surviving the coronavirus pandemic

How zoo animals in India are surviving the coronavirus pandemic

Earlier in March, Nadia, the four-year-old Malayan tiger at the Bronx Zoo in New York City tested positive for COVID-19. Zoos across India, which had already shut their gates following the nationwide lockdown, were on high alert.

The Central Zoo Authority of India, the apex body for all zoos in India, issued an advisory asking zookeepers not to go close to the animals without safety gear, preferably PPE (personal protective equipment), and have minimal contact while feeding them.

While all this was happening, the 56,800 captive animals in 160 recognised zoos across India were slowly getting used to a new normal — living in a human-free environment sans the cacophony of visitors.

So how are the animals managing? In zoos some species depend on humans for sensory stimulus. For instance, the chimpanzees, elephants and other primates, clearly seem a little bored these days. “Their day is less interesting without humans,” says Rahul Pandey, Chief Conservator of Forests (Wildlife), Andhra Pradesh. “These are social animals, who enjoy interacting with visitors. One of the ways to ensure their well-being is to keep them in groups,” he adds.

Vandalur Zoo

How zoo animals in India are surviving the coronavirus pandemic

At Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, also known as Vandalur Zoo, 400 staff members are busy every day. Spread across 1,487 acres, the zoo is home to more than 2,600 animals such as lions, tigers, elephants, chimpanzees, hippopotamuses, gaur, rhinos, and leopards, among others. Over the past three months without the noise of visitors, the animals seem to be enjoying a relaxed time in their enclosures. The members of the staff who come for work daily ensure that the animals do not forget the existence of humans. “The staff keep visiting the enclosures, cleaning them, feeding the inhabitants...if there is anything different psychologically or physically, it will reflect in the animals’ feeding pattern,” explains Sudha Ramen, Deputy Director of the zoo.

The zoo staff is ensuring that the routine of animals remains unchanged. From maintaining the time of feeds to ensuring daily physical activity, the animals are monitored to keep their metabolism up.

Indira Gandhi Zoological Park

How zoo animals in India are surviving the coronavirus pandemic

Cheepa and Chikitha — the chimpanzees at Indira Gandhi Zoological Park in Visakhapatnam — are not fans of the stay-at-home and social distancing norms. “They seem a bit dull. When we come in, their eyes light up,” says their keeper. But the good thing is that the two bond well and have been partners in crime for a long time. Three years ago, they both even made a dashing attempt to escape after managing to scale the 20-foot-high wall of their kraal! Spread over 625 acres, the zoo has close to 900 animals like mammals, carnivores, lesser carnivores, canids, ungulates, reptiles, birds and butterflies belonging to 123 species. “The effect of ‘no-visitors’ is less when primates are kept together, preferably in large numbers. Other species in the zoo like the ring-tailed lemurs are in good numbers. So they enjoy being with each other,” says Rahul Pandey. The birds, especially the lone blue gold macaw and the green-winged macaw, seem to have noticed that the visitors are gone. Their gregarious calls are subdued as they wait to be greeted with the chatter of people.

The zoo authorities have kept a system in place to ensure safety of animals and staff. “These include keeping foot baths with Virkon - S solution at all animal enclosures, washing of fruits and vegetables with sodium hypochlorite and then thoroughly cleansing with potable water, vitamin and mineral supplements for herbivores by mixing in feed to enhance immunity, spreading of bleaching powder and lime outside the enclosures and on the road sides,” says Nandani Salaria, zoo curator.

Nehru Zoological Park

How zoo animals in India are surviving the coronavirus pandemic

Meanwhile at Hyderabad’s Nehru Zoological Park, officials have adopted a different strategy to ease the anxiety of animals — the zoo authorities make trips to every enclosure in a group. Curator, N Kshitija of Nehru Zoological Park says, “The exercise is a must to keep them in touch with their routine of seeing people. We visit them two-three times a week and as a response they started following us with their eyes.”

How zoo animals in India are surviving the coronavirus pandemic
The giraffe, for instance, even started following the zoo staff as they walked outside the enclosure. Monkeys show tremendous response. On seeing people, they start doing their antics to gain attention. Suzi, the chimpanzee, needs a lot of attention because she is used to it. So the caretakers are spending more time around her, keeping her engaged with conversation. The predators, on the other hand, are enjoying the silence and actually spending more time in the open area within their enclosures.

Madras Crocodile Bank

How zoo animals in India are surviving the coronavirus pandemic

At the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust, the reptiles are enjoying the peace. The lack of noise from visitors means they are a bit more curious when someone passes by, assuming — and rightfully so — that it is a keeper bearing snacks for them. The reptiles here are trained to respond to calls or gestures, and the extra time on the trainers’ hands means the training happens at greater frequency. “We are also prepping for when we open, we will have a few new things for the public,” says Ajay Kartik, assistant curator at MCBT. One of these will be a nearly seven-foot alligator, weighing around 60 kilograms — a teenager named Ally. The 17-year-old is being moved to the first enclosure in the exhibit and is currently being trained. She is learning how to respond to a mixture of visual and voice commands, including instructions to come out of water, look up at the trainer, hold the position, jump, or get into the water again.

VOC Park Zoo

How zoo animals in India are surviving the coronavirus pandemic

At the VOC Park Zoo in Coimbatore, the rosy pelicans are a happy lot. “It was in last August that one of them hatched a chick at the zoo, after a break of 18 years. We took extra effort to build a natural habitat to improve the fertility rate. The calm during the lockdown boosted the mating behaviour. The birds frolicked around and displayed vocalisation using the ‘gular pouch’ (distensible pouch below the lower mandible of the bill). We have a second hatchling. The little bird is healthy,” says E Senthilnathan, Zoo Director. The peacock, parakeets and cockatiels seem to be equally joyful without the hustle- bustle of visitors, as they call out to their mates in the silence of the surroundings. “Other animals like the spotted deer have even started mimicking how they usually behave in the wild,” says Senthilnathan, adding, “For them, it feels free to run and graze.”

(with inputs from Akila Kannadasan, K Jeshi, Prabalika M Borah and Sweta Akundi)

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Printable version | Aug 7, 2020 12:51:59 AM |

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