Heavy-duty desert coolers and ‘toofan’ fans are out and energy boosters such as glucose and ORS are stocked up in Delhi’s zoo to help its 1,200 animals beat the scorching heat. It’s 11.45 am and the sun is beating down on the 176-acre National Zoological Park without mercy.
As the mercury rises to 43 degrees Celsius, Vinod Kumar, 28, picks up a hosepipe and walks into the night house, where Tipu, Sita, Geeta and their 8-year-old mother Kalpana are kept in separate steel cages. “It’s time to give them a bath to keep their body temperatures down,” the contractual employee, tasked with taking care of the family of white tigers, says.
Even as mercury soars to 47-48 degrees Celsius in peak summer, inside the night house, where the big cats are kept in steel cages, two large, heavy-duty desert coolers and four ‘toofan’ fans whirl non-stop to maintain the ideal temperature — between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius — for the animals, he says.
“It’s comfortable 30-32 degrees Celsius in here, while it could be 40-41 degrees Celsius out in the open,” Kumar says, as Sita saunters into a large wire mesh cage, ready for the bath. The father, Vijay, a 11-year-old white tiger who shot to notoriety in 2014 after he mauled a man to death, ambles in the shade near an artificial, V-shaped pond.
“I bathe them three-four times a day. Besides, I take care they are not overfed as a light stomach helps deal with the heat,” Kumar says. “Their food is rationed, only 10 kg red meat per day in summer. Normally, the felines get 12 kg,” the caretaker says. The animals also get glucose mixed with water before the meal. It helps them cool off. “The white tigers consume one kg of glucose in three-four days,” Kumar says.
Around 200 metres away, 30-year-old Akanrhawa, with his pants rolled up to the knee, is feeding bananas to Heera Gaj and Lakhsmi. “Bananas are cold in nature and allow absorption of more water,” he says. “The elephants have 8 kg of bananas in breakfast. Around noon, the tuskers get green fodder. In the evening, after the zoo closes at 5 pm, they get khichdi,” Akanrhawa says.
After Heera has had his breakfast, the caretaker leads him to a stretch, close to the pond inside their sprawling enclosure, where he will be bathed. Lakshmi, meanwhile, is having fun wallowing in the mud in a shallow pit nearby. “Elephants like spraying themselves with muddy water. A thick coating of mud acts as a natural sunscreen and soothes insect bites. And, they love it when they get a scrub,” Akanrhawa says.
“Usually, I bathe them once a day. They waddle into the pond whenever it gets hot,” he says. The zoo has four leopards, kept in two cages, each with a large desert cooler and two fans. Their caretaker, Sridhar, makes sure they get water after ever half an hour. The big cats get 6 kg of red meat, their only meal for the day, around noon.
“We reduce their meat intake by 2 kg in summer so that they can hold more water in their stomach and don’t feel dehydrated,” he explains. “My leopards consume one kg of glucose a week. I also mix ORS in their water to deal with electrolyte imbalance due to the excessive heat,” he says. The zoo’s curator, Riyaz Khan, says the workers stick to a diet chart prepared by experts for summers.
“We give beetroot, bael, onion, garlic, watermelon, muskmelon, etc to our bears. Glucose and ORS protect them from heat stroke,” he says, adding that 70 desert coolers in the zoo operate round-the-clock in summer months.