They may be kings of the jungle but bred in captivity in the Delhi zoo, white tigers are reduced to a mere curiosity — and their quality of life greatly compromised
July 21, a warm summer day in 2007, Yamuna gave birth to Vijay. Yamuna is from Delhi — her union arranged like many others — and the father, Laxman, from Bhubaneswar.
In the same year, on February 6, Kalpana was born to two Delhi inhabitants, Kaveri and Swaraj. Years later, as fate would have it, or as the world demanded, Kalpana met Vijay. She was introduced to him for the sole purpose of mating and reproducing at the Delhi zoo, continuing the line of tigers — more importantly, white Bengal tigers — in captivity.
There’s no romantic story here, with tragedy lurking behind the surface. The Wildcat Sanctuary says that normal tiger behaviour in the wild would prevent the kind of inbreeding that would be necessary to produce white cubs. Further-more, it alleges that captive inbreeding of white tigers results in high neonatal mortality rates, typically exceeding 80%.
That’s not to say that white tigers have not been seen in the wild —sightings are just rare. The white colour of the Bengal tiger comes due to the lack of pigment pheomelanin. But somehow, in a country obsessed with fair and lovely skin tones, one reason so many visitors come to Delhi zoo is precisely to see this rare creature. Like a freak show of the 18th century.
The keeper of the white tiger enclosure at Delhi zoo tells Patriot that inbreeding can’t be helped, it will inevitably happen in such a limited population. Take Vijay, Kalpana and their four cubs who were born on March 18, 2015. They aren’t little anymore, but magnificently huge cats, which have reached their maturity age.
Of the four, Geeta, Sita and Tipu live with their parents, while Meeta has her own enclosure as there isn’t enough space for her with them. Living together does not mean they are one big happy family, sharing meals together, or playing in the park. By nature, adult tigers are solitary creatures. If they spend time together, chances are they would tear each other apart, says Rajesh, their keeper of three years, “Being male, one will go after the tigress, and if she’s not in the mood, she’ll attack. Also, the male tigers will fight for supremacy”.
To work off their natural aggression, how much activity are they allowed? Sadly, not enough. One tiger is let out into the open compound, or let’s say the viewing ground, for the public each day, the other four have to wait it out in the enclosure behind, which is nothing like the front yard. There’s no pool, no cave, forget grass. All one can see is wet muddy sludge.
They are allowed into these separate slots at 9 am and tempted back into a wire cage, with buffalo meat by 2 pm. They get 10 kg each in summer, the ration being increased to 12 kg in winter. The rest of the day — from 2 pm to 9 am — is spent sitting, with nothing else to do, staring into the space ahead, waiting to be let out again.
When Patriot went to the zoo, Vijay was the lucky one out for the day. He would be allowed back in at 5 pm, and then fed. The other four were chowing down remnants of the buffalo and its bones, in an enclosure reminiscent of old films depicting kennels for tigers in a circus. It was approximately 10 ft long and 6 ft wide, a cramped space for them to live out their lives, which is typically 25 years in captivity. In the wild, they have less longevity, it could be 15 years due to typical jungle hazards and lack of treatment for injuries. But the quality of life in a zoo is still depressing, despite all the modern amenities it may offer.
The menu is monotonous, just as it is for human inmates of Tihar jail, except that convicts are allowed home food sometimes. Tigers get buffalo meat every day. In the wild, they can feast on deer, antelope, wild pig, amongst other prey. They also get exercise: in captivity, they don’t need to hunt, everything is handed to them. Which is why, Rajesh says, “It’s important to keep them on a day of fasting, as in the wild they would go through days without food”.
And how happy does a tiger behave on its daily parole? He says once a tiger is let out it plays in the water, and runs around, like “If we go to a hill station our face glows, likewise, of course they are happy too”.
How then can society approve of the concept of captive animals? Those who are pro-zoo say it’s an important educational centre for people to see wild animals. For many parents, there is an unwritten rule that kids have to be taken to the zoo. But do children or even adults learn anything about an animal after seeing it in captivity where essentially its natural behaviour and surroundings are absent?
PETA India’s Nikunj Sharma points out that zoos are a “relic of a bygone era”, where the enclosures are “on average 100 times smaller than the minimum home range in the wild”. The habitats in the zoo are “manufactured” and usually “preclude natural behaviour, such as flying, swimming, running, hunting, climbing, scavenging and partner selection”. Even in the best of circumstances, Sharma argues, captivity is “cruel for animals who are meant to roam free.”
An eagle, unable to spread its wings and fly, the leopard unable to hunt, the deer unable to graze — the sambar deer were huddled together like cattle under one roof made of dried leaves and bamboo, taking refuge from the scorching sun. In other enclosures, like that of the leopard and wolf, they are surrounded on three sides by barbed wire. The leopard paces up and down as people surround his cage, a clear sign of stress.
Imagine living out your life to an audience which is not content with just observing you, but tries to catch your attention like an ‘eve-teaser’. A man working in the zoo said people are regularly caught teasing the animals. This, even, after the accident in 2014 when a man fell into the enclosure of the white tiger Vijay, who after mulling for some time about this strange intrusion, attacked the man, who subsequently died. Now, guards man the enclosures more stringently but they can’t gag all visitors.
The reality on the ground is that people aren’t sensitive to the needs of animals. Most treat them as objects of gratification. If the lion roars or a crocodile pops out of its pond and reveals its teeth, it is lauded as if it just gave a performance for others’ benefit. So, perhaps the education that a zoo is supposed to provide is a bit of a failure.
The footfall, though, continues to increase. From April to March 2015-16, the zoo saw approximately 25.91 lakh visitors. In 2016-17, while the numbers came down to 20.48 lakh, it was due to the closure of the zoo for three months because of bird flu. In 2017-18, the footfall was over 27 lakh.
The most powerful argument in favour of zoos is the conservation effort. True, zoos have helped some endangered species get a lifeline. The Delhi zoo itself has done the conservation breeding for the Bengal tiger, Indian rhinoceros, swamp deer, Asiatic lion, brow antlered deer, and red jungle fowl, according to its website.
Rajesh, the keeper, also says that everyone who works in the zoo, does everything possible for the welfare of their wards, “when word goes out that a tiger is sick, they’ll be here in minutes, they care”. He was also of the view that zoos were essential to conserve animals, else they would all die in the wild. Perhaps he is not aware that tiger reserves and wildlife sanctuaries serve the same purpose in natural habitats.
Zoos are at best a place where animals can be protected from human threat. But Sharma says that if zoos are meant for conservation and education, it’s a “terrible lesson”. They teach children that “it’s acceptable to keep animals in captivity – bored, cramped, lonely and far from their natural homes.” Instead, “Children can learn from books and wildlife documentaries.”
In terms of conservation, endangered animals “are no happier in zoos than animals who are plentiful. Warehousing animals is not the answer to saving them from extinction; their ultimate salvation lies in the protection of their habitats, not in a life sentence in a zoo.”