Following the confirmation of coronavirus in a tiger at a New York zoo, the Central Zoo Authority under India’s Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has asked Chief Wildlife Wardens across India to enact precautionary measures to prevent possible cross-species transmission of the virus. However, in West Bengal, where all zoos have been closed since March 17, authorities have been spraying an antiviral in the cages since February 6 itself.
Rajib Banerjee, the state minister for forests, told The Indian Express: “Zoo staff change their clothes when they enter the zoo premises and potassium permanganate is used to disinfect their shoes.” Banerjee said across the state zoos have been instructed to feed animals from a distance and veterinary doctors are constantly available for advice. Staff working in close contact with animals have been given PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to wear. Banerjee said that animals are being regularly checked and emphasis is being placed on sanitising the interiors of the zoos. “We can assure you that nothing will happen. We are following four times more precautions since the outbreak of coronavirus across all national parks and zoos in the state,” he reiterated.
The advisory issued on April 6 asked zoo to remain on high alert and watch animals for abnormal behaviour and to ensure that animal handlers were not allowed near the animals without PPE. The advisory says all sick animals are to be isolated and quarantined, and handlers are required to have minimum contact with animals during feedings. It emphasised precautions for carnivorous mammals and zoos have been asked to send body samples of animals with suspected cases on a fortnightly basis to the three designated animal health institutes for coronavirus testing.
Up in North Bengal, the Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, also known as the Darjeeling Zoo, usually has zookeepers wearing face masks when tending to animals. These precautions have been stepped up since the coronavirus outbreak. “Apart from the regular disinfection, we began sanitising the hand-rails and pathways. Hand sanitisers were also given to visitors before the zoo shut down,” said zoo director Rajendra Jakher.
In the first week of March, Jakher said, the zoo implemented several precautions. “Jute bags were placed all over the pathways inside the zoo because we have hilly terrain. The jute bags were sprayed with disinfectant and lime because jute retains liquid and doesn’t let it run off,” explained Jakher. The zoo staff have also been given gumboots and advised of precautionary measures.
The Darjeeling Zoo has taken extra steps to ensure the protection of its cache of protected and endangered species, including the snow leopard and the red panda. The zoo has been using a blowtorch to burn handrails and metal grilles in animal enclosures as well as corners and walls where chemical sanitisers might have failed to reach.
“It is hard to get swabs from carnivores, but it will be done only if they get sick,” said Jakher, noting that the species were considered high-risk for coronavirus. “The only way the virus can come through to animals is through zookeepers. In western zoos, visitors can come in close proximity to animals for a price. In Indian zoos, visitors see animals from a distance of more than 10 feet,” he said. Also, in Indian zoos, the carnivores are kept even further away and visitors are not permitted to feed animals. Recently, Darjeeling Zoo added an extra layer of protection for some species with the use of toughened glass barriers so that droplets of cough and other liquid particles from people don’t reach the animals.
After West Bengal shut down on March 23, essential zoo staff have been living inside the zoo premises itself and have not travelled outside. These temporary measures will continue for at least 25 days, added Jakher. The zoo is also monitoring the body temperature of the staff twice a day.
At Kolkata’s Zoological Gardens in Alipore, the country’s oldest zoo, the premises were additionally disinfected two months ago with antiviral spray in response to concerns of a potential coronavirus outbreak. Following the nationwide lockdown, zookeepers were given face masks and gloves and veterinary doctors have been conducting regular checks on animals.
“The zoo kitchen, where the staff eat, only allows five people inside at a time, while 20 people would go in earlier. Doctors are also regularly checking animal feed for contamination. We had already been following precautions before the Central Zoo Authority issued its advisory,” said zoo director Asis Kumar Samanta. Hours after the advisory was issued on Monday, Samata met with the forest minister to discuss the zoo’s preparedness.
Alipore Zoo has enough animal feed for now, because zoo authorities got in touch with suppliers before the lockdown to ensure that there was adequate stock, in addition to its existing feed supplies and dry rations, said Samanta. “In the New York zoo, it was a case of human to animal transmission of the virus. We have told staff to inform us if they have any health concerns or symptoms of coronavirus,” he added.
The Wildlife Division of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change has also issued a separate advisory for containing and managing potential outbreaks in all national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves. In a circular titled “most important”, national parks, sanctuaries and tiger reserves have been ordered to reduce “human-wildlife interface”, or any possible interaction between the species. A restriction has also been ordered on the movement of people in these areas. All Chief Wildlife Wardens have been asked to create Rapid Action Forces with field managers, veterinary doctors and frontline staff to prevent the spread of coronavirus into wildlife territories.
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