Born in fetters

Published : Jul 22, 2000 00:00 IST


THE Sangli zoo in western Maharashtra exemplifies the major ills of Indian zoos, namely, lack of space and facilities. This situation has resulted in the unnatural death of seven lions in the past one year. Nearly 15 years ago, a lion and a lioness, Ragh u and Janaki, were brought to Sangli and lodged in a cage measuring about 1.5x2.1x2.1 metres. The practice of not allowing wild animals to breed in captivity was ignored and Raghu and Janaki produced successive litters until there were 29 lions in the zo o. All of them were housed in miserable circumstances. Two or more lions were housed in one cage. Fights and injuries were frequent, but there was no expert veterinarian to look into the specific needs of wild animals. The zoo depended on a local veterin arian, who had a 'visiting doctor' status with the zoo.

Life remains the same for the fifth generation of Raghu and Janaki's descendants. Of the seven deaths of lions in one year, one was because of old age, another was the result of a fight among lions, two were caused by unidentified ailments and three were because of pneumonia and hepatitis. The latest death was that of a 12-year-old lioness, on July 11. It was paralysed partly at the age of two and survived for 10 years in that condition.

Started in 1970, the Sangli zoo is managed by the Sangli Municipal Corporation and does not come under the purview of the Zoo Authority of India (ZAI). Deputy Municipal Commissioner Ashok Patil says: "Space is the main problem. We can only locate it with in the corporation limits. The Sangli zoo is just an extension of Pratapsinh Udyan, a public garden. Other wild animals include two deer and three wolves, all of which are said to be healthy. The zoo has an annual budget of Rs. 12.75 lakhs, and Patil say s that increasing the budget would be no problem. The animals are fed beef on all days of the week except one day when we give them milk. The quality of food is monitored regularly."

The lions "lack nothing" except space, according to Patil. However, they get no exercise, though he says that work on providing an exercise compound attached to some cages has begun. According to Patil, in 1987, the civic authorities wanted to move the animals to a larger park within the city limits but was forced to give up the idea. The proposed location bordered a school run by a Gujarati organisation. The school authorities raised two objections to having the lions in their backyard - the roar, whi ch would disturb the pupils and the beef diet, which was an affront to their religious beliefs. The Corporation found these reasons valid enough to keep the lions confined in cages at Pratapsinh Udyan.

Some changes have been made to improve the living conditions of the animals. The size of the cages has been enlarged. The 28 surviving lions are now housed in slightly bigger cages, the largest of which measures 6x6 m and the smallest approximately 3x3 m . Two or more animals share a cage, a condition that inevitably results in fights and injuries. At present four lions are injured - three have minor injuries while the fourth is recovering from an infection on a hind leg, which was not noticed until it b ecame maggot-infested.

The Corporation plans to employ a full-time veterinarian, though not a wildlife specialist. Currently the zoo has two isolation cages; which are essential to keep sick animals. "We are fly-proofing these since flies are the main reason for spreading magg ot infection in wounds", says Patil.

The main problem at the zoo other than lack of space is the lack of specialised care with the knowledge of wild animal behaviour. For instance, the authorities say that after the size of the cages was increased, fights among the lions are more frequent. "They are aggressive and when we give them more space, they get a chance to display their aggression," says Patil. "So we now have to consider whether or not to give them more space." A veterinarian who spoke to Frontline in Mumbai said that the a ggression was owing to confinement and not, as is being presumed, because of the larger cage space.

Patil says that there have been successful attempts to transfer lions to other zoos. Some years ago a few animals were sent to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park outside Mumbai. This year the zoo at Bokaro asked for three lions. The Solapur zoo took another three and the Goa Forest Department asked for one. "We want to keep only the number of animals that we can maintain," says Patil. The number will be dictated by the space available.

The greatest tragedy is yet to be played out. One of the primary aims of a zoo is to propagate and promote a species. Unable to overcome the space problem, the Sangli zoo is embarking on a programme of sterilisation, thereby destroying the basic rational e behind zoos. Supporting the move for different reasons, Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary magazine, says: "There is no alternative to sterilisation. Zoos were meant for conservation, breeding and education but that is just a patina. Not one sing le zoo-bred tiger has ever been released into the wild. Zoos provide entertainment for the masses. They are torture chambers. The animals living there should be sterilised so that zoos are gradually phased out."

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