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2022-12-03

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Humboldt penguins at the Mumbai zoo. | Photo Credit: Emmanual Yogini

Jaguars, hybrid lions and orangutans, among 600 species of mammals, birds, and reptiles from around the globe, will soon be displayed at ‘one of the world’s biggest zoos’ in Gujarat’s Jamnagar city. This is reportedly the ‘pet project’ of Anant Ambani, the son of India’s richest man, the owner of Reliance Industries, Mukesh Ambani.

Also read | Indian zoos: just a stamp collection?

A little over a year since the project was announced, the 288-acre Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom has already courted a fair bit of controversy. The latest involved a reported transfer of seized exotic animals from the Assam State Zoo to the Jamnagar facility, which sparked criticism from the Aam Admi Party and the Assam Trinamool Congress — they wanted the animals brought back. Meanwhile, in South India, the VOC Park and Zoo in Coimbatore was in the news for the wrong reasons: the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) cancelled the recognition of the facility for not following norms: there was a lack of access to fresh food and water, and no basic facilities such as treatment rooms.

Also read | Indian zoos: seeds of wildlife conservation

The VOC Park and Zoo in Coimbatore, which lost its licence recently. | Photo Credit: M. Periasamy

India’s 149 recognised zoos attract millions of visitors every year. While there are naysayers, the narrative may be changing. The CZA states that ‘although the initial purpose was entertainment, over the decades, zoos have transformed into centres for wildlife conservation and environmental education’.

There is indeed some commendable work being done by individual zoos. For instance, the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling, the country’s largest high-altitude zoo, was judged India’s best zoo by the CZA this year: it is recognised worldwide for its conservation breeding programmes for endangered species such as the red panda. At second place was the Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, which conducts eco-awareness programmes such as a ‘zoo school’ that offers classes to students on a regular basis.

The Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park in Darjeeling was judged India’s best zoo by the CZA this year. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

But these examples apart, how are the majority of Indian zoos faring? Do they meet the salient objectives of conservation and education set out for them?

There have been some worrying reports from across the country. In 2017, a group of researchers published a study of tigers and leopards in six Indian zoos in the scientific journal  PLOS One. Of the 41 tigers and 21 leopards studied, they found that 83% of the tigers and 62% of leopards showed ‘stereotypic behaviour’ — an indication of stress, manifested in repetitive pacing, head rotation, chewing paws and snapping. The paper suggested that tigers in captivity should have access to larger enclosures with a pool and stones; and leopards needed dense tree cover, a pool, stones and a den. Both species also needed ‘positive keeper attitude’.

“I don’t know if anything has been done to follow up on our recommendations,” says one of the authors of the paper, Nagarajan Baskaran, assistant professor, Department of Zoology and Wildlife Biology, A.V.C. College, Tamil Nadu. “Zoos often do not follow CZA guidelines and I find that space appears to be the biggest constraint in several, undermining the welfare of free-ranging animals such as carnivores. In future, zoos should be established on the outskirts of cities where there is access to space.”

A leopard at the Ramnabagan Mini Zoo in West Bengal. | Photo Credit: PTI

Zoos are in a constant process of evolution, says Sanjay Kumar Shukla, member secretary, CZA. The number of recognised zoos in India changes each year depending on annual evaluation reports. Last year, for instance, six were closed down. “In one instance, there was a lion safari that did not comply with the minimum area prescribed for carnivore safaris. Another was shut down because of the poor upkeep of animals,” he says. The CZA is in the process of upgrading zoos and some 15 zoos are now also in the process of collaborating with international zoos for knowledge transfer. This includes an MoU between Vanvihar National Park & Zoo, Bhopal, and the Zurich Zoo, Switzerland.

Historically, zoos were ‘collections’ of captive animals, open to the public to establish the legitimacy of rulers, empires and powerful people, says Mahesh Rangarajan, an environmental historian with Ashoka University. “The London zoo, established in 1826, for instance, showcased animals from across the Empire. Later, zoos aided research and public education; primatologist Frans de Waal has famously studied the behaviour of great apes in the Amsterdam zoo” he says.

In India, while some zoos have helped in the conservation of species, there is still an ambiguity about the rationale, says Rangarajan. “We need to ask if zoos are primarily spaces for entertainment and recreation. Do they serve conservation and education meaningfully?”

We bring you the opinions of experts who weigh in on the benefits and drawbacks of contemporary zoos across India.

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