On grounds that were once a stone’s throw away from figures such as Humayun and Sher Shah Suri, greenery and waterways on a 176-acre stretch compose what is now the National Zoological Park, better known as the Delhi Zoo.
While plans had been in the works for several years, with an initial report ready in 1956, the zoo was finally finished in 1959. It was a modern zoo, for the capital of a nascent Union; having been built based on the principles of zoo designer Carl Hagenbeck, with an emphasis on open sightlines rather than fences separating visitors and animals. Even today, most fences at the zoo are barely waist-high, with animals separated from visitors by deep moats.
But even in its modernity, there are reminders of the area’s history. The zoo is overlooked on one side by the Purana Qila, within which Humayun famously broke his neck, with one of the Kos Minars, a Mughal-era road marker, not far from the entrance. The Akbar-era Azimganj Sarai inn is not far either – the area was clearly a thoroughfare for travellers.
The zoo itself has changed over the years as well, with new laws and information about animal care informing its work. According to former zoo director Sonali Ghosh, “In the earlier years the practice of animal diplomacy was very common, and gifted animals would end up in the Delhi zoo, such as snow leopards and even a kiwi. But this is no longer the case after the Wildlife Act and Central Zoo authority came into existence. Now animals like snow leopards are only kept within suitable environments, such as Kashmir or Shimla.”
One exception is the famously lonely African elephant, Shankar, who arrived in India in 1998 as a gift from Zimbabwe. Zoo authorities say they are currently trying to find a partner for him. Some other African guests, such as the giraffe that once lived here, have passed away from old age.
Other residents are free to come and go as they please – the waterbird enclosure is open to the sky. Research published by Dr Abdul Urfi of Delhi university indicates that painted storks, for example, have been coming here since around 1960. According to Ghosh, “The storks have been coming here for years to nest and raise their chicks. They always arrive sometime around Independence Day.”
Technology has marched on with the times as well. Zoo director Dharam Deo Rai said, “The way logistics is done has changed over the years. An employee who retired in 2002 came to the park for some documents relating to his pension, and he told me that in his day, fodder for animals used to be transported with camel carts.”
Rajkumar Khanna, an upper divisional clerk who joined in 1997, has his own share of memories. “There used to be elephant rides earlier as well, although those have been stopped. But technology is the biggest change here; we now use only online tickets ever since Covid.”
The directors of the 1960s would have envied the tools of today, though the zoo looks much the same. Director Rai and his staff are able to remotely view the development of the zoo’s newest guests – three white tiger cubs. They are small and clumsy now, tripping over their mother’s paws, but if all goes well, visitors to the zoo will one day be able to see them on display.