If wildlife conservation and research is the purpose of animal parks, Delhi Zoo needs to pull up its socks
NATIONAL ZOOLOGICAL Park in Delhi is a beautifully planned zoo. It was made with a vision — it would have state-of-the-art facilities and management practices and be a role model for other zoos in the country, providing guidance and inspiration.
Administered by Central Zoo Authority (CZA), a statutory body formed under the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, the zoo comes under the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change. It is housed in a 176-acre sprawling enclosure situated near the Old Fort, a 16th-century citadel. The zoo is home to about 1,350 animals representing almost 130 species of animals and birds from around the world.
However, though Delhi’s zoo is one of the best in terms of cleanliness and recreational facilities, it fails to deliver on the conservation and research front. When the Patriot visited the zoo, we found animals including the white tiger, which is included in the IUCN’s list of threatened species, seemingly suffering from psychological problems. The leopards and white tigers were pacing up and down along the wall even when they were outside their confinements. The elephant too was swinging its trunk even though it was in an open space.
This behaviour is considered abnormal in animals. As per a report published by Animal Welfare Institute, an American NGO working for animal welfare, “Stereotypic behaviour has been defined as a repetitive, invariant behaviour pattern with no obvious goal or function.” When animals are kept in captivity, they start doing some activity out of boredom and even when they are released, they keep doing the same activity.
The development of this mental illness is a complex process. In general, experts believe that both stress and the inability to behave in some species-specific ways contributes to the development of stereotypic behaviour. It depends on factors like the amount of food intake, the temperature of surroundings, space where they are kept, among other factors.
“Captive animals adjust their behaviour to cope with their environment, potentially resulting in phenotypic divergent between wild and captive. These responses will be individual level or conspecific groupings. The captive environment that is more restrictive than wild can alter how an animal learns and changes how it responds to future events. Secondly, captive populations are exposed to selective pressures that, over generations, shape behaviours adaptive to the captive environment, hence they show abnormal behaviours in captivity.
“They initially try to flee from there but when they can’t, they become habitual to this artificial environment provided for them.” said Dr R.K Negi, associate professor, Zoology Department Delhi University.
Experts believe this abnormal behaviour affects the goal of ex-situ conservation of wildlife, as an animal when released will forget inherent behaviour. For example, if a carnivorous animal forgets how to hunt, it will eventually die. Therefore, behavioural enrichment programme is a must, to provide species-appropriate challenges, opportunities and stimulation.
Suneesh Buxy, Director of National Zoological Park, mostly deny that their animals suffer from any abnormality. He says it is a pattern that animals start following in captivity but it is not abnormal. He also says that they work for behavioural enrichment of animals by constructing the enclosures as per proper guidelines and providing utmost care.
Sourabh Vashisth, range officer at National Zoological Park, told Patriot, “The enclosure of the bear is very much enriched to stimulate its behaviour. We sometime hide food from it so as to give it the feeling of hunting. We are working on creating similar facilities for other animals.”
NZP has three veterinary doctors, an operation theatre and a laboratory. An official says they sometimes send animals for testing outside Delhi too and invite vets from outside. When the Patriot tried to talk to the vets, they were unavailable for comments. However, it should be noted that only three doctors were available for around 1,350 odd animals. That means one doctor per 450 animals.
While officials say that they provide food playfully to the tiger to provoke some aggression, a guard told us that food is served to the tiger from a small gap in the fence and it is done very mechanically.
He further said, “Animals undergo periodic check-ups but no activities are allowed to involve animals in any sporting activity. But sometimes we let them out of the cages to roam around in the open space.”
Talking to the caretakers, the Patriot did not get the impression that they are trained to handle behavioural abnormalities in animals.
Vashisth gave the following justification: “We have to follow the Wildlife Protection Act. Outside India, animals in zoos are tamed that is why they can be involved in sports to enrich their behaviour. But in India, this Act has to be followed. We cannot allow animal to play with a plastic ball. We never tame them but ensure that they remain wild — which is our purpose.”
On the same note, Dr Negi said, “We cannot even conduct research on protected animals. It is very hard to get approval from authorities for research on animals which come under schedule I and schedule II of the Wildlife Protection Act.” However, the Act does not prohibit research on any animal. It even stipulates that authorities shall promote research. When we talked to researchers at Delhi University about it, they agreed that permission is hard to get.
India has very few behavioural scientists studying animal behaviour. Talking about this, Dr Negi admitted, “Behavioural studies do not happen that frequently on animals in India. They are quite rare in our country. Therefore, we cannot say what (exactly) the problem is with an animal showing behaviour abnormality.”
Another issue at NZP is that of noise pollution. The nearby traffic and chatter of visitors is very high for a zoo. When we recorded the sound, the average sound was 70 decibels, but on weekdays it reduces to 60-65 decibel. Officials informed us that no acoustic arrangement for soundproofing in the animal enclosure is there. But they say, “National Pollution Control Board periodically checks the noise in here and they are so far satisfied. When visitors come to the zoo, the sound increases. In the morning, the sound is low at around 20-30 DB.”
VISITORS TEASE ANIMALS
On our visit, the Patriot’s team noticed that a large number of visitors despite the deterring notice boards were teasing the encaged animals.
Crocodiles, monkeys and porcupines were a few examples. The efforts of the authorities to rein in the menace of teasing seemed half- hearted at best. There are very few notice boards educating visitors.
The animals, it seemed, were serving merely as props for recreation, rather than providing an educational outing for visitors – failing to fulfil the very nature and purpose of the entire facility, which is to educate humans about animal life so they can empathise with the animals and contribute toward wildlife conservation.
Vashisth says, “There has been no study on visitors. We have to first collect data and then we will understand what kind of visitors are coming. After which we will plan and implement the strategy to educate visitors. There are very few zoos where visitors have been studied and footfall limited according to carrying capacity, as is done at the Mysore Zoo.”
James Borrell, a conservation biologist based at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew presents some arguments on his blog rejecting the very idea of zoological parks. “First, keeping animals in a cage is cruel. Second, zoos are just for entertainment. Zookeepers are not trained and therefore they act cruelly.” Echoing the same argument, the votary of In-situ conservation (conservation of animal and plant species at their natural environment) CR Babu, an environmentalist and professor emeritus at Delhi University Department of Environmental Studies, said, “Keeping animals in captivity is not right. The natural environment for them is the best for their survival. They lose immunity and face a lot of other problems when kept in captivity.”
The National Zoological Park is one of the best educational and recreational facilities in Delhi. With regards to cleanliness, we found dustbins in every corner of the zoo, a well-maintained washroom for visitors and drinking water facilities. Every Friday, when the zoo is closed, maintenance and cleaning of the premises is carried out.
Yet discoloured water contaminated and algae could be seen in many places and there was no provision to stop it from seeping into the ground by cementing the surface. This increases the threat from zoonosis — diseases transmitted to humans by zoo animals. Containing zoonotic diseases has become very important as evident from recent spread of diseases like coronavirus and swine flu. When we enquired about it, the authorities said, “When we mix water from borewell and supply water, it looks dirty but it is not. We deliberately do it so that algae, weed can flourish which is a food source for some animals. There is no threat of zoonosis.”
MAINTENANCE AND OUT-REACH ACTIVITIES
The National Zoological Park is the only zoo administered by central authorities. It sends invites to schools and colleges and runs awareness campaigns. It is claimed that a log of VIP visitors is maintained but they would not show the log.
The enclosures for wild animal are relatively bigger than those in most zoos in India. The enclosure of important animal like white tiger, lion, and bear are designed in a way to ensure their behavioural enrichment. Wooden logs for animals to scratch were placed in enclosure so they do not harm themselves by scratching on the cemented surface.
Electric powered vehicles are used inside the zoo to reduce noise pollution. Animals are not given food on Fridays. They are kept on fast on that day as per the recommendation of the veterinary doctors. However, we observed fitness issues with animals. Some were overweight and some underweight.
During weekends, school kids are invited to visit the zoo to ensure the primary objective of educating them is served.
The NZP can take a lot of management cues from the Mysore Zoo. Raising ticket prices according to carrying capacity, asking for security amounts to be deposited for use of plastics bags and bottles within the premises and ensuring psychological and well as physiological well being of the animals.
If the vision of the Delhi zoo is to be a model zoo for all such establishments in India, authorities must work to build up that status. Or pass that honour to the Mysore Zoo.