An unidentified man was killed by a pair of lions at Mahendra Chaudhary Zoological Park (better known as Chhatbir Zoo), around 20 km from Chandigarh, on Sunday. Preliminary investigations by zoo officials suggest the victim had scaled the 30-feet perimeter wall of the safari from the side of the Ghaggar river, and entered the restricted area. The safari, spread over 2 km, has four lions, and two had been released in the safari area on Sunday.
A patrolling and rescue party headed by Range Officer (Animal Management) Harpal Singh said the man was spotted inside the park in the afternoon. Singh told mediapersons that his team got to him within six minutes, but by that time he had already been mauled.
Johnny, the driver of the mini-bus that was taking tourists for the safari, first spotted the man. “He was alive when I saw him. But he was either mentally unstable or under the influence of intoxicants,” Johnny said.
Johnny, who claims to have seen the lioness Shilpa dragging the man by the neck, informed his contractor, who in turn alerted the officials. Johnny said he then raced away with the bus, blowing horns and whistles to scare away Shilpa and the lion, Yuvraj, with her.
The man, who appears to be in his 20s, received severe injuries on his eyes, face, neck and chest. Police did not find a mobile phone or any identifying document on him. The zoo was closed immediately after the incident.
“A patrolling party headed by me and comprising Duty Officers Rakesh Chander, Shivjot Singh and Malkit Singh and Patrolling Duty Officer Rupinder Singh and 15 others received information around 2.22 pm that a man had been spotted inside the lion safari. We rushed to the spot and pushed the lions away. But by that time he had already been attacked. He was rushed to a nearby hospital but did not survive,” Harpal Singh said.
Field Director M Sudhagar said Shilpa and Yuvraj had been let out for public viewing today. “Two other lionesses, Hally and Heer, were inside their enclosures. The mini-bus that takes visitors for a tour was carrying 20 visitors.”
Pointing out that there was no habitation on the side of the zoo from where the man entered, he said, “Only the Ghaggar flows on the other side of the wall. It is not clear what the man was doing there and how he managed to scale the high wall and the barbed-wire fence on top.”
The wall is 10-foot high and has a 20-foot mesh atop it. Besides, a deep moat separates the wall from a kuchcha road used to access the Ghaggar riverbed. Zoo officials said the man was found 50 metres inside the zoo from the wall.
Sudhagar said that every day at 9 am, the Range Officer (Animal Management) conducts a recce of the safari to check for any breach in the wall or the perimeter fence. The team also looks for any intruder, animal or human. The drill was conducted Sunday morning as well, and it was only after nothing untoward was found was an all-clear report given to let in the bus with the visitors.
A detailed report on the incident would be sent to the Central Zoo Authority, Sudhagar said.
The lion keepers said the big cats are fed at 10 am and 5 pm daily. “Today too all the lions were fed in the morning. It appears the lions felt threatened by the presence of a human in their space,” said one of them.
Inaugurated in 1977, the zoo is one of the biggest in India. The Chhatbir protected forest area was once a hunting ground of the Maharaja of Patiala. The lion safari continues to be a big draw despite the dwindling number of its inmates. While it had 87 lions in 1996, now the number is down to four. While two are kept in the enclosure, two are released for the safari.
The only other such incident at the zoo happened nearly 20 years ago. In October 1999, a Jammu-based driver had been killed by a Himalayan Black Bear. The man had fallen into the moated enclosure of the bear under the influence of alcohol.