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Saturday, December 04, 2021

Re-imagine the zoo

First, get government out of its management.

Written by Valmik Thapar |
Updated: September 25, 2014 7:37:43 am
Indian zoos are not driven by education and are among the worst I have ever seen. They are driven mostly by bureaucracy and red tape. Indian zoos are not driven by education and are among the worst I have ever seen. They are driven mostly by bureaucracy and red tape.

The death of a youth who was mauled by a white tiger at the Delhi Zoo brings to the fore the most irresponsible forms of human behaviour. Sadly, in this case, a life was lost. This is an occasion to look at the whole issue of zoos across the country. At the moment, zoos are advised and their functioning coordinated by a body called the Central Zoo Authority, managed by forest officers who serve the respective state governments. In my view, these zoos are antiquated in concept and are in a mess at the moment.

Let me state at the outset that zoos are important and nearly 600 million people go to see tigers every year. That is a huge captive audience. Good zoos are vital sources of education on any species — its numbers, its status, the threats it faces, its future. There are state of the art zoos such as Taronga in Sydney, the San Diego zoo in the United States, and in Singapore, to mention just a few. Such zoos make the public aware of the plight of our wildlife and our wildernesses. They have become centres for conferences and debates. Some good zoos also have the best libraries that money can buy. They focus on reaching children, the future generation on whom the fate of our wildlife depends.

Unfortunately, Indian zoos are not driven by education and are among the worst I have ever seen. They are driven mostly by bureaucracy and red tape that makes life miserable for both the animals and the people who go to see them. I believe there is a new way forward.

To begin with, disband the Central Zoo Authority, which is a statutory body under the ministry of environment and forests. It is an ineffective government body, made up of so-called specialists, serving or retired forest officers and others who are of little use. Zoos should not be managed by forest officers. It is not their forte.

The management and planning of our zoos should be outsourced from government control. The Narendra Modi government seems to be a believer in public-private partnerships. This is a great area for such partnerships. The new government is also supportive of the role of business in increasing awareness about our forests and environment, and in assessing the impact of climate change. This is an opportunity to partner with industry and make zoos in India learning centres for people and havens for the animals. We have close to 200 zoos in prime areas across India, all waiting to be revamped, rejuvenated and cleaned up. These places can be turned into models of good governance. In our bustling cities, they could become oases of harmony between people and nature.

I see few problems in getting the private sector to sponsor the overhauling of our zoos. This is the kind of privatisation that has been successful across the world. So what are we waiting for? The government’s only roles can be to provide funds, if necessary, and facilitate private-public partnerships, since some rules may have to be amended or clauses in our laws changed.

This is the need of the hour. Non-governmental organisations and individuals have to be empowered to spearhead such reform. In the past, people from outside the IAS have been appointed as secretaries to the government of India and individuals from outside the IFS have been appointed ambassador. People like Sam Pitroda and Nandan Nilekani have been called in to clean up and run enormous infrastructures. Surely we can outsource 200 zoos across India and make them the best that talent can create? And why should they be run by forest officers if they are not forests? Once these changes are made, there will be a line of committed people waiting to work for zoos, and specialised courses in zoo management are bound to spring up all across the country. It will boost wildlife veterinary studies and these zoological parks will become hubs of learning in our cities.

The focus today is on the tragedy that occurred in a zoo, and which could not really have been prevented. But our vision for these places must be dynamic and innovative, with only a minimum role for government. Globally, most zoological parks of note have little to do with government and ministries. We need to change our mindset and realise that running a zoo is not a talent that lives in government. What I am suggesting is only common sense and must be an imperative for the Modi government. I am certain that state governments will be delighted to privatise zoos. The tens of millions of people who visit our zoos would then have the experience of a lifetime.

Thapar is author of ‘Tigerfire’ and has spent nearly 40 years working with wild tigers

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