For over 40 years, the Animal Ark Rescue Centre at Hemalkasa, a hamlet in the Gadchiroli forest, has blurred the lines on what constitutes a conventional zoo. It has earned its owner, Prakash Amte, a number of accolades — a seat on the National Tiger Conservation Authority between 2009 and 2012, a place on Maharashtra’s wildlife board, the Venu Menon Award for Wildlife Conservation (2000), the Padma Shri (2002) and the Rajiv Gandhi Award for Wildlife Conservation (2006) handed out by the Ministry of Environment and Forest.
At the same time, the centre’s methods have also led to repeated run-ins with the same authorities. Last October, the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) issued a notice asking Amte why permission for the centre should not be cancelled. This was after a film broadcast by History Channel showed Amte’s granddaughter, 21-month-old Rumani, handling animals including a banded krait and a Russell’s viper. In a letter, the CZA stated handling the animals violated the Wildlife Protection Act. Amte met CZA member-secretary D N Singh in November and explained his centre was actually an animal shelter, where orphaned animals only days old are brought in and, as such, have to be fed by hand.
The issue was settled with Amte agreeing not to handle the animals or allow visitors to photograph or videograph his rounds in the zoo. He told the CZA that he will also complete the plan to expand the zoo. “The plan was submitted to the CZA a while ago, and we have built the compound wall. But we need Rs 10 crore to complete the project. Since we don’t get any government aid, we are banking on donations,” Amte tells The Indian Express.
This is not the first time Amte’s handling of animals has landed him in trouble. In 2003, the Maharashtra forest department initiated an “animal confiscation” move for the same reason. The controversy blew over after Amte threatened to return his Padma Shri, which he had got for his humanitarian as well as wildlife work, along with the animals.
Handling animals has also put him at risk. In 2006, Amte was bitten by a Russell’s viper and underwent treatment for over a month at a Nagpur hospital.
There have been other issues. Last July, the CZA raised objections on the grounds that Amte acquired animals without permission from the state’s chief wildlife warden. Amte explained: “Since we get animal cubs barely days old from local tribals and since we operate from a place from where it is not possible to secure immediate permission from the warden, we can’t afford to lose time in taking the animals into the shelter and ensure their survival. We, however, secured the permission later on and they have been duly granted too.”
A month after the CZA notice, Amte was nominated as a member of the Animal Welfare Board of India, underlining his ambiguous relationship with the authorities. Three days later, on December 15, he was conferred with the “Lifetime Achievement Award” at the third Kolkata International Wildlife and Environment Film Festival.
Amte defends his unconventional methods. “Though we have the status of a rescue centre, ours is actually an animal shelter. People bring in injured or orphaned animal cubs that have to be fed and raised by hand,” he says. “Also, unlike other rescue centres, it is not possible to release the animals back into the wild since they won’t be able to survive in the absence of survival training by their mothers,” says Amte.
He says it has been this way since the centre was set up in 1974, when it had it first animal, an injured monkey.
It occupies two hectares on the 10-hectare plot that houses the Lok Biradari Prakalp (LBP), the larger humanitarian project that Amte’s father, the late Baba Amte, began in 1973. Through the LBP, Prakash and his wife, both doctors, have been providing healthcare and education to Madia-Gond tribals of Gadchiroli as well as to those from neighboring Chhattisgarh and Telangana.
“Initially, all animals stayed at our home without being chained. They included a leopard called Negal, his partner Negli, the sloth bear Rani, a wild bull, a monkey, many dogs and a lion called Hemal donated by Nagpur’s Maharajbag Zoo. My wife Mandakini would feed them and we would go for a walk with them to the sangam of the Parlakota, Pamulgautami and Indravati, where they would have a bath. This went on till 1988, but with vehicles increasing and the LBP school getting more children, we had to put them in cages,” Amte says.
The leopards and the lion stayed together in a cage, Amte says. When Negal died, Amte requested the forest department for a caged leopard. The department agreed but, he says, warned him that the animal was very aggressive. “They said I won’t be able to handle him as he would charge at humans. But I entered his cage and he simply accepted me,” Amte laughs.
Today, the zoo has 93 animals of 24 kinds including a female leopard. The team includes veterinary doctor Anuradha Nemade, and livestock supervisors Vijay Meshram and Piyush Dhobe. The Amtes often visit the cages twice a day, mainly for visitors who shoot pictures and videos, something the Wildlife Protection Act doe not permit.
“I agree we don’t conform to the rules. But if we decide to follow them in letter, we may have to wind up this unique experiment to showcase the importance of wildlife in an area that has been deprived of it by the existential compulsions of tribals. It’s only because of this zoo that they have developed a sense of responsibility towards animals,” Amte says.