In 1810, the British colonist Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles visited a small menagerie in Barrackpore in Calcutta. The visit left a lasting impression on Raffles, who was also an amateur zoologist. The “scientific documentation” of plants and animals at the menagerie is said to have influenced the colonist-turned naturalist when, a decade later, he set up the world’s first modern zoo in London.
Barrackpore’s collection went into the making of the country’s first modern zoo at Calcutta, whose first Indian superintendent general, Ram Brahma Sanyal, authored a manual in the 1890s that remained the standard handbook for zookeepers all over the world till well into the 1960s. The management of Indian zoos today, unfortunately, does not reflect any of this illustrious heritage.
An investigation by this paper has revealed that Delhi’s National Zoological Park tailored data to show a remarkable drop in mortality rate. It did not record the deaths of at least 50 animals, including several endangered species. In 2015-16, the year before it doctored data, the Delhi zoo had a mortality rate of 27 per cent — more than five times the figure deemed acceptable globally.
The malaise is not restricted to the Delhi zoo. Mumbai’s Veermata Jijabai Bhonsle Udayan lost 77 animals in 2016-2017, including one of the eight Humboldt Penguins the city had acquired barely six months before at a cost of Rs 2.57 crore. “For the most part, zoos have not been able to meet the challenges imposed by the changing scenario and still continue with the legacy of the past, displaying animals under conditions which are neither congenial to the creatures nor educating and rewarding to the visitors,” notes a Central Zoo Authority report of 2014.
In what seems a throwback to the times of Raffles and Sanyal, Indian zoos lack specialists. Most make do with veterinarians or, at the best, zoologists schooled in wildlife management. An animal in captivity, however, is very different from a creature in the wild. Loneliness and lack of access to their own kind cause psychological complications that require the attention of specialists.
There is now a recognition the world over that the zoo environment needs to be spacious enough to allow the animals a semblance of a social environment. A 2009 notification of the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests notes that “A large zoo must have 75 hectares for 750 animals of 75 species, or 0.1 hectare for every species”. However, most Indian zoos, including those in Delhi, Kolkata and Mumbai, do not satisfy this requirement. It’s time that the development of the zoo in India outgrows its moorings in a menagerie.