A secluded, dusty road that starts from near a private school in Chhat village, barely a few hundred metres from Chhatbir zoo’s main entrance – with Ghaggar river on one side, this stretch of approximately seven kilometres, metalled in patches, circles around the zoo’s perimeter wall with its restricted areas, including elephant, lion and deer safaris inside. With wild shrubs, thorny bushes and trees leaning over the iron mesh atop the perimeter wall into the zoo’s restricted areas, this is the road that was presumably taken by the unidentified man who trespassed into the zoo’s lion safari Sunday and was mauled by a pair of lions.
A day after he was killed by lioness Shilpa and lion Yuvraj, The Indian Express team traced this route and found stark contradictions in the claims made by the zoo authorities, particularly regarding the height of the perimeter wall made up of bricks with iron mesh atop it. While the zoo’s field director M Sudhagar Sunday told media persons that the height of the perimeter wall, including the iron mesh and angle irons, was at least 30 feet on the inner side and 35 feet on the outer, the Indian Express team found that it was not more than 20 feet. While the iron mesh and angle irons are approximately 14 feet-high atop the brick walls, height of the wall varies between three and four feet around the deer safari and six and seven feet at various other points towards the lions’ enclosure.
While the zoo officials had maintained that it was impossible to scale the wall, it did not take more than two minutes for this team to climb up the wall and iron-mesh fencing. The team, however, did not cross over as that would have amounted to trespass. The easy-to-breach wall puts a question mark on the security of animals in these restricted areas. There are no Close Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras to check such intrusions, though there are some at the entry and exit gate of the lion safari inside the zoo.
The road, which according to villagers and zoo authorities, is non-existent in revenue records, poses a serious security threat to animals in the zoo as it’s easy to get a clear view of the lion, deer and elephant safaris from this stretch. Admitting that this was a matter of concern, Field Director of Chhatbir zoo, M Sudhagar, told The Indian Express that they will soon raise the height of the perimeter wall so that it blocks the view from this unauthorised road.
As per the guidelines prescribed by Central Zoo Authority, the height of the perimeter wall has to be five metres. We comply with these norms, but since there is this unauthorised road on the outer side, which has been laid at a height, it lowers the perimeter wall’s height from the outer side. Thus, we have now decided to increase the height of the brick wall and there will be iron-mesh fencing atop, which will completely block the view from outside,” Sudhagar told The Indian Express.
Monday is closed for visitors to the zoo. This morning, a team of zoo officials and rescue workers fine-combed the lion safari area for any clues that could lead to the victim’s identification. One of the members of the rescue team, not willing to be named, said, the victim is yet unidentified. “We found Rs 480 and a pack of chewable tobacco from his pockets. He was bare-foot. We have not found any shoes or slippers. No mobile phone has been recovered either,” said the member.
The area behind the zoo is the dark underbelly of Chatt village, and it’s often frequented by drug addicts and sand mafia. There is ample evidence of illegal mining on the river bed. Tractor-trolleys and trucks filled with sand and gravel from the river bed, getting on this road and then moving towards nearby construction sites is a common sight for villagers. Residents of the village claim that the mining activity intensifies during late evening and night hours.
The zoo authorities and police are suspecting, the victim might have been one of the labourers. The rescue team added that they suspect the man who fell prey to the lions could be “mentally unstable”. One of the team members said they have spoken to some labourers in the area. “They told us that they had seen him roaming around the area bare-foot on several occasions in the last few days. They added that he looked mentally unstable,” said a member.
Whether the man was mentally unstable or under the influence of some intoxicant will get clear only when the autopsy is done. In case of unidentified bodies, doctors wait for 72 hours before conducting a post-mortem examination. Villagers said that although they seldom use this unauthorised road, a number of migrants, who have settled in the periphery of the zoo, frequent it to fetch wood. “A number of times, we have seen that drug-addicts also find refuge in this area on the other side of the zoo. Even police personnel never patrol this area,” a villager said.