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Post-Nandankanan dilemmas

Print edition : Aug 05, 2000 T+T-

The Nandankanan tiger deaths highlight the need for a total reform of zoos in India and indeed a change in people's attitude to nature.

BITTU SAHGAL

THE irony of poisoning the zoo environment to save the inmates of the zoos seems to be lost on zookeepers in India. Having come to the debatable conclusion that the tigers in the Nandankanan zoo in Orissa died, on one cataclysmic day, of trypanosomiasis (and not because the Berenil injections may have been either faulty or faultily administered, without prior blood tests, or that inbreeding may have lowered the tigers' immunity), the zookeepers are on the verge of turning hundreds of zoos in the country into toxic hotspots (Frontline, August 4, 2000).

The zookeepers, who met recently, appear to have decided to spray a combination of the world's most lethal organochlorines and organophosphates in and around cages, on plants visited by birds and insects, and even on the grain and other food items that t he animals eat. This, they believe, will help prevent disease-spreading flies from infecting the animals. That it could simultaneously damage their endocrine systems and endanger workers and visitors to zoos, including children, has simply not occurred t o them.

These are typical knee-jerk reactions of technical and administrative authorities who find themselves in the media spotlight after decades of cover-ups, mismanagement and apathy. Most other post-Nandankanan solutions suffer similar infirmities, which ste m from a lack of accountability. But this is par for the course; even the special committee that was sent by the Ministry of Environment and Forests to Nandankanan turned out to be a damp squib, with its leader P.R. Sinha, Member-Secretary of the Zoo Aut hority of India (ZAI), stating on July 8 that "The expert committee is not here to conduct any probe but to ensure that measures be taken for better management of the zoo in future." Predictably, zoo officials, not people from non-governmental organisati ons (NGOs), constituted the majority on the committee. Little, therefore, will change from within. And the circumstances that led to the death of 12 tigers recently in Nandankanan will continue to prevail unless radical reform is forced on the system.

Take just one issue, that of overpopulation in the zoos. Virtually every Indian zoo is guilty on this count; most zookeepers measure their own success by the number of births they are able to claim (No one publicises zoo deaths). It has time and again be en pointed out to zoo managers that such overcrowding is a prescription for disaster, but they accepted this fact only when the world media battered them over the Nandankanan deaths.

Now, the authorities of the Nandankanan zoo, who overbred the much-sought-after white tigers in order to exchange them for more exotic wild animals from other zoos, are falling over their feet to give their surviving white tigers away.

But other zoos in India are equally overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded. Sending big cats to them is unlikely to improve their condition. What the zoos need to do instead is to stop altogether exhibiting large and endangered animals such as lions, tigers, elephants and primates behind bars.

But this is not to suggest that zoo facilities be closed down. On the contrary, the suggestion is to improve them to a stage where zoos become true nature orientation centres and botanical parks, with all modern facilities and some incidental live animal exhibits to supplement film shows, slide-illustrated talks, nature trails and orientation camps. This would serve two cut purposes:

1. Real nature education: Currently zoos in the country do not perform this service. Asking children to see animals kept behind bars and calling this nature education is no better than sending children to city jails to educate them about crime.

2. Basic animal welfare: By having fewer animals and more space and money to look after them, inevitably the welfare of animals would improve vastly.

So what needs to be done about Indian zoos?

Some people even suggest euthanising sick and diseased animals. Biologists and naturalists in the country, including this writer, suggest instead that a policy of "no recruitment" be instituted for animals already incarcerated in zoos. This involves a sl ow reduction in the population of captive animals over the next 15 years (the average lifetime of most cats, for instance). As a matter of policy, zoo keepers should prevent births and desist from acquiring new animals to replace those that die with such abnormal frequency. With this straightforward strategy in place, 90 per cent of the problems would be solved without any additional expense and with dramatically reduced trauma to the suffering animals.

Obviously, such changed directions will need serious discussion and public pressure, which alone can change the mandate of zoos. The expertise of the very best zookeepers and veterinarians is needed to supervise the downsizing. Such welcome directions ha ve the best chance to succeed if all those concerned with wildlife and animal welfare agree to work on a common agenda of downsizing, even if they disagree on the broader canvas of the raison d'etre of zoos. As of now, virtually no biologists or e ven zoo keepers disagree on the pathetic state of the zoo system in the country. They also agree that entertaining humans is no longer an acceptable raison d'etre of zoos or circuses.

IN days gone by monarchs suffered no qualms or pressures from public opinion. They freely created menageries and pleasure gardens, stocked to the brim with exotic creatures. In their favour it might be added that at least there was no hypocrisy about the m. The animals were there, plain and simple, for the pleasure of humans, to entertain them and to imbue them with power over tooth and claw. Tickets were sold to the public to watch animals kill animals. This evolved into an unparalleled blood sport when , in the most "civilised" country in the world, Romans began to throw Christians to the lions.

Slowly, with the advent of scientific exploration, the idea of using captive facilities to expand human acquaintance with the animal world began to alter the purpose of such barbaric zoos. Towards the end of the 20th century, when the loss of wild habita ts became a frightening reality, many zoos volunteered to set up special breeding centres, "Animal Arks" of sorts, to prevent the extinction of wild species.

Some of these efforts have been markedly successful. These include the breeding of gharial crocodiles (ex-situ) from eggs collected from the wild for reintroduction into rivers in India where they can develop (in-situ). The same was done in the case of the American bald eagle and the California Condors. Efforts to reintroduce the Arabian oryx have also met with worldwide approval. Using similar strategies, the International Crane Foundation has nurtured endangered crane populations back to relative security in Asia.

Experts, however, point out that nothing can replace the protection of wild habitats as a strategy to prevent species extinction. This is where it should be possible for all to work together, but sadly that is not the case. Not enough money was ever allo cated to zoos, not even to the Delhi Zoo, which is under the direct care of the ZAI and should have been the example for all other zoos to follow.

Forest officers saw appointments to zoo as punishment postings. The inherent inability of the system to punish government officers, even when caught red-handed, has allegedly encouraged some zoo employees to divert medicines and food meant for animals. W hen you add hardcore insensitivity to the rights of animals in the millions of visitors for whom chimps and tigers are no more than a diversion from a family picnic you have a prescription for disaster - which is what all Indian zoos are today.

Instead of working together, therefore, one see the spectacle of pro- and anti-zoo people slugging it out in the press and at workshops and conferences. As accusations are exchanged, the animals whose best interests both sides claim to represent die in l arge numbers.

Sally Walker, a respected zoo professional and an ardent proponent of rational zoo reform, with whom I have had long and inconclusive discussions, says: "For a variety of reasons, Indian zoos... have not been able to construct a workable, systematic and scientific species management plan for endangered species. Instead, every year or two a list of species is drawn up in a zoo directors' meeting and different zoos are asked to regularise sex ratios, make pairs and separate related animals. However enthus iastic the zoo directors may be, when they return to their zoos they are unable to organise most of these exchanges. The bureaucracy attached to each institution is so complex and the understanding of the bureaucrats so poor that few animals have been ex changed which would forward the conservation of their species."

I also wrote to several experts around the world about the dilemma that India faces post-Nandankanan. The response from Dan Wharton, a dedicated wildlife expert with New York's Bronx Zoo best encapsulates their advice: "Zoos require enormous commitment a nd support from the community that maintains them. If the proper level of commitment and support is not there, the community and certainly the animals are better off with no zoo."

Most experts agree that deep-rooted chauvinism of almost any kind directed at virtually any source could result in serious long-term problems and must therefore be tackled quickly and effectively. Minority rights groups of all descriptions, often at grea t cost to themselves, consequently engage in daily battles against the tide of public practice. It is such battles that define the kind of societies we live in and the kind of people our children will grow up to become.

As a general rule, people who stand up for the unempowered tend to be sensitive and courageous, almost visionary. Strangely, however, even some of the most sensitive humans seem not to recognise the chauvinism inherent in their own attitudes towards anim als.

At the risk of entering the realm of the abstract, I wonder sometimes what it is about human beings that leads us to believe that we are not a part and parcel of nature. What, for instance, makes us shrink with horror at the thought of inflicting cruelty on other humans, while simultaneously condoning unspeakable brutality on animals?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word cruel suggests being: indifferent to, delighting in, another's pain or distress. No zookeeper in India sees himself or herself in such light, nor do the millions of people who visit zoos and poke, prod , feed, disturb and otherwise torture wild animals that have been robbed of their fight-or-flight response.

When I was a child I did love going to the zoo and to the circus. I mistakenly imagined that the animals were having as much fun as I was. I had not known that spears were used to move tigers from cage to cage, that both zoo and circus animals are beaten as a matter of routine that captive animals are treated like rugs, to be replaced when worn out. This is not the kind of lessons I would like any child to be exposed to; nor, I imagine, would even the most ardent zookeepers.

I would plead, therefore, for a national consensus on zoos. Every urban zoo is a valuable green lung for the city. The problems of overcrowding could be easily solved which would in turn help us focus our financial resources better. With imagination and sensitivity, existing zoos could be turned around and could become centres of nature education.

Bittu Sahgal is the Editor of Sanctuary magazine.