The killing of a six-year-old tiger in Itanagar zoo by suspected poachers should not have shocked us. In 2006, three tigers and a leopard were poisoned in the same zoo. In 2000, a young tigress was killed in Hyderabad zoo and its jugular vein slashed to collect blood for a Durgashtami ritual. In neighbouring Bangladesh, four tigers were poisoned over three days by their keepers at the Dhaka zoo in 1996.
Tigers have not been the only target. Eight rare Brazilian marmosets were stolen from the Calcutta zoo in 2009. The mastermind later confessed to stealing military macaws from Ahmedabad’s Kankaria zoo and sundry other wildlife from different zoos in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh. Only this January, a poacher was nabbed next to the rhino enclosure inside the Guwahati zoo in possession of a .303 rifle, cartridges and an axe.
The zoo debate has been one of the pet issues of conservationists and let me revisit a few arguments. The 2010 vision statement of the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) said that zoos “will have healthy animals in eco-system based naturalistic enclosures, supportive to in-situ conservation with competent and contented staff, good educational and interpretive facilities, support of the people and be self-sufficient”. Two years on, most of the zoos in the country rather fit the standards set by the American Heritage Dictionary that defines the word zoo as “a place or situation marked by rampant confusion or disorder”.
During 1992-2009, the CZA evaluated 347 zoos, out of which 164 were recognised and 183 refused sanction. Out of these 183, 92 were closed down and their animals relocated to other facilities. The future of the remaining 91 derecognised zoos was under review. As of March 2011, the number of recognised zoos has gone up to 198. Of these, till this January, only 49 zoos have their master plans approved by the CZA. The obvious result is gross mismanagement, corruption in purchase, abysmal safety or healthcare standards and, of course, non-existent security.
Before demanding better facilities in these hellholes, we need to ask ourselves if we really need so many overcrowded zoos. Distressed animals deserve dignity and shelter. Captive breeding can offer certain threatened species a second chance. But how many of those 36,000 animals and birds held captive, and many of them breeding, in India’s zoos are rescued specimens or part of any scientific re-wilding programme?
In Reading Zoos, Professor Randy Malamud was candid: “What people see inside the zoo cage is a symbol of our power to capture and control other aspects of the world. They see what was once a marvellous, vibrant, sentient creature, full of instincts and emotions and passions and life force, reduced to a spectacle, a prisoner, a trophy of our conquest of the natural world. They see a celebration of the human power to displace and reconfigure an animal’s life for our own amusement and supposed edification.”
But this not only an ethical question. Craig Redmond of Captive Animals’ Protection Society offered some amazing data. A study by Bristol University in 2008 looked at all 77 elephants in UK zoos, concluding ‘there was a welfare problem for every elephant’. They spent 83% of their time indoors, 54% of them showed repeated obsessive performance and only 16% could even walk normally due to degenerative foot and leg problems.
Elephants in the wild live up to three times longer than those in zoos. Even lion cubs in zoos record a higher mortality than those in the wild though at least a third of deaths in the wild are due to factors, such as predation, which are absent in captivity.
Redmond went on to argue how many conservation scientists criticised captive breeding as a diversion from the reasons for a species’ decline. As one paper in Conservation Biology put it, captive breeding programmes give “a false impression that a species is safe so that destruction of habitat and wild populations can proceed”.
But zoos educate the children, right? David Hancocks, a zoo veteran who worked across continents, dismissed the idea: “If zoos were as effective as they claim to be, surely after so many millions of visits by so many millions of children over so many decades we would have a society that was very knowledgeable of, concerned about and enthusiastically supportive of wildlife conservation. I strongly suspect that much of what is learned at the zoo, especially subconsciously, is in fact detrimental to the development of supportive and considerate attitudes towards wild habitat conservation.”
But do not we at least get to see species that we would never have otherwise? Malamud has a curious take on this: “What’s most amazing about, say, a giraffe or a panda, is that a person like me who lives in Georgia, is not supposed to see these animals. They just don’t belong here. Making these fascinating creatures so easily available greatly diminishes their real beauty, their authentic existence.”
“Secondly, zoos teach us that habitat, environment or ecosystem is not very important. Why bother trying to protect the environment when we can just scoop up all the interesting animals who live in it and put them on display? Naturalistic education should, on the contrary, teach us in the strongest possible terms that our awareness of living beings must be inextricably connected with their contexts, their life-spaces.”
While even the best of zoos do infringe on the basic welfare needs of animals in order to benefit the secondary desires (amusement or enlightenment) of humans, India cannot just dismantle its hundreds of zoos and abandon thousands of captive wildlife. What we need is urgent zoo reform and a time bound strategy to reduce the number of zoos, bring down the numbers of animals to ensure more space for each, and ensure scientific, accountable management of the facilities.
Security is only one aspect of that professionalism.