The Nandankanan tragedy

Print edition : July 22, 2000

The death of 12 tigers in an Orissa zoo raises important questions about the care and management of wild animals in captivity.


ESTABLISHED 40 years ago, Nandankanan in Orissa, famous for its tigers, is considered one of the finest zoos in India. This month it faced the worst catastrophe in its history, when 11 tigers died in a span of four days. Another had died on June 23. Some experts believe that all 12 tigers died of Trypanosomiasis, a disease transmitted through flies. Eight of them were the rare white tigers.

A white tiger followed by a companion at the Nandankanan zoo.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

On June 20, Debashish, a male tiger, showed signs of ill-health. Its blood and urine samples were sent to the Orissa Veterinary College. The test results indicated that it was a complicated case of Trypanosomiosis, Leptospyra and microfilaria. The animal died on June 23. The zoo authorities felt that it was an isolated case and did not think it necessary to take any emergency measure. The decision proved costly. On July 2, Sagar, another male tiger, fell ill, showing similar symptoms as Debashish, namel y, lack of coordination in movements and partial paralysis. The animal was shifted to the intensive care unit of the veterinary hospital, where it died on July 4. Meanwhile, three more tigers showed similar symptoms. They too died on July 4.

The alarmed zoo authorities, along with the veterinary college staff inoculated 17 tigers. All of them did not belong to the affected group; tigers in enclosures 32 and 33 adjacent to theirs, were also inoculated. But that did not stop the tragedy. The n ext day five tigers died in quick succession and one each died on the sixth and seventh days. The tiger population in the zoo, which was 56 including 27 white tigers before the tragedy, was reduced to 44, including 19 white tigers.

B.C. Prusty, the Conservator of Forests and Wildlife, Orissa, and the Director of Nandankanan told Frontline: "It is extremely unfortunate, but we did our best. We have a highly competent team, which is technically sound." Prusty dismissed reports that the Berenil shots given to the tigers were spurious."If that were the case, how come six of them have survived? We are trying our best to prevent such a catastrophe from happening again," he said. Animal lovers in the State, however, feel that the "best" efforts by the zoo authorities were not good enough. "The Berenil shots were given too late. Why was the abnormality in tigers' behaviour not spotted earlier?" asked Biswajit Mohanti, secretary of the Wildlife Society of Orissa.

Most people believe it was gross negligence on the part of the zoo authorities that led to the death of the tigers. None of the senior zoo officials lives on the zoo premises. The State government passed an order in February 2000 to shift their offices t o the premises, but it has been ignored. Practically all of them live and work in Bhubaneswar, about 15 km from Nandankanan. Moreover, it is felt that the government's decision to wait until July 6 to send SOS messages to experts within the country and a broad betrayed official callousness. By that time 11 tigers had died.

The Central team of six experts, who came down on July 6, gave a clean chit to the zoo authorities: it said that no one could be held responsible for the deaths. Member-Secretary of the Veterinary Council of India, Ram Kumar, is reported to have told the media that the there was nothing wrong in administering Berenil to sick animals. However, he criticised the authorities for failing to detect the disease earlier. "Had the zoo authorities observed the symptoms in the tigers earlier, several of the decea sed tigers could have been saved with drug administration at the proper time," he said.

P.R. Sinha, Member-Secretary of the Zoo Authority of India and a member of the expert team, told Frontline that it was difficult to detect a disease in any animal, especially tigers. He said there were too many tigers in the zoo. According to him, the zoo does not have the capacity to hold 56 tigers. "There has to be a programme to reduce the number either by shifting the animals to other zoos or through vasectomy," Sinha said. He believes that the animals should be living in clean and hygienic s urroundings and be monitored day and night. Prusty, however, felt that capacity was not an important factor here as the zoo could hold around 50 tigers.

The State government decided to transfer some tigers to other zoos in order to reduce the number in Nandankanan. However, neither the Central team nor the State Forest Department arrived at a consensus as to the ideal number for Nandankanan. State Forest Secretary Hawa Singh Chahar told Frontline: "We are still working on that." The price tag of Rs. 5 lakhs for each tiger proved too high for other States and so, according to Chahar, the State government is considering a reduction in the price.

A demonstration by animal lovers in front of the zoo on July 8.-ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY

Dr. S.K. Ray, head of the Veterinary College of Orissa, feels that the death of the tigers and their poor response to the medicine can be attributed to the animals' weakness and lack of resistance to diseases. It is believed that stress caused by changes in weather and transport, and also in-breeding, reduce resistance in animals. Although the zoo authorities claim that in-breeding has been reduced in Nandankanan, it continues.

Ray dismissed any possibility of the tigers being treated with the wrong medicine or being given an overdose. The minimum dosage of Berenil is between 0.8 and 1.6 gm for every 100 kg of body weight. The average weight of a male tiger is between 150 kg an d 200 kg and that of a tigress is between 100 kg and 150 kg. "We prescribed the minimum dose," Ray told Frontline. He said that it was very difficult to treat animals as big and powerful as tigers. They have to be injected through blowpipes."If so me of them needed the administration of a saline solution, there was nothing we could do. When an outbreak like this happens, what can one do?" Ray asked. He feels that to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again, more time has to be spent with the an imals."Only through observation we will be able to realise when they behave strangely and take steps to prevent such a tragedy. There has to be regular waste disposal and judicious use of fly repellents."

Even though veterinary science has made considerable progress in India, the focus has always been on domestic and productive animals. Experts believe that more specialised institutes should be built exclusively to treat wildlife. "Even though the doctors in the Veterinary college are competent, they are not wildlife specialists," said Biswajit Mohanti. Pradeep Malik of the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehra Dun, believes that there should be a complete change in policies with regard to zoos, not only in Nandankanan but every zoo in India. He feels that there has to be better housing for the animals to prevent diseases, and for this a specialist zoo architect is needed."In the current situation in the world where there are such drastic climatic and envi ronmental changes, new diseases are bound to appear in the animal world. We will just not be able to deal with them if we do not start making changes now," he told Frontline.

Trypanosomiasis is not new to Nandankanan, nor to any other zoo in India. In 1990, a wild dog was affected by the disease but was cured and last year five tigers got affected, of which three died. So the zoo authorities were aware of dangers of an epidem ic of this kind.

Even the public points an accusing finger at the zoo authorities. The general impression is that incompetence caused the deaths. V.K. Mohanti, a visitor to the zoo who is visibly affected by the tragedy, was severely critical of the zoo authorities. "It is their job to look after and protect these animals. They are being paid to monitor their activities. It is a shame," he said. But how can one blame only the zoo and forest authorities when the State Forest and Environment Minister said nonchalantly on national television: "So 12 tigers have died. So what?"

The Minister may not have understood the importance of the issue, but the Supreme Court has."What happened in Nandankanan zoo is very serious... It is worse that these tigers died while in the protective custody of the zoo... We will have to address the larger issue of protecting tiger population not only in forests but also in zoos where they are kept in protective custody. For this purpose examination of the report of the high-level team is required," said Chief Justice A.S. Anand, while hearing a pub lic interest petition filed by Naveen M. Raheja, who sought protection to tigers from poaching in the wild.


TRYPANOSOMIASIS, caused by Trypanosoma evensi, is mechanically transmitted by biting flies such as Tabanus, Stomoxys and Lyperosia. The parasites may be present in the body of an animal, but there will be no external manifestation of its presence until it gets into the bloodstream. Once in circulation, the parasites multiply through binary fission, and only when the number of parasites reaches pathogenic level will the animal begin to show signs of infection. The parasites may enter the central n ervous system and damage the brain. The animal shows signs such as paralysis and incoordination in movement, as in the case of the tigers at Nandankanan. However, these attacks, as in the case of malaria, are intermittent. As soon as the antibodies devel op, the parasites decrease. The affected animal behaves normally again at this point. But the parasites change into new antigenic variants and multiply. This leads to a chronic stage in which death may or may not occur. If the stage is acute, then there is little chance of survival. All the tigers in the zoo are reported to have been in an acute stage. This takes place particularly during the monsoon when the fly population increases.

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