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Caretaker of white tigers

His life revolves around Khushi, Beena, Rani and Sita. He takes care of them with love and passion. And he says that all four love him too! Manoj Sharma reports.

delhi Updated: Oct 20, 2012 23:40 IST
Manoj Sharma

His life revolves around Khushi, Beena, Rani and Sita. He takes care of them with love and passion. And he says that all four love him too!

Nekram is an assistant zoo keeper on what is known as Beat No. 8 and the four females are white tigresses under his care at the National Zoological Park in New Delhi. Nekram’s job includes cleaning the cages, feeding the animals, keeping a record of their health and behaviour, and answering questions put to him by visitors.

Apart from the white tigresses, he also takes care of two male white tigers — Vijay and Vickey — as well as four jaguars and two hyenas.

Nekram, who uses just one name, comes to work at 9am. His workplace is a large room with fans, an iron cupboard, shelves and the iron cages in which the white tigers live. The first thing he and his assistant Ramkesh do after coming to work is ensure that everything is fine with the animals: whether they are active, their behaviour is normal and their bowel movement is regular. They record these details in a register. Another register that they maintain contains details of the condition of the cages and their locks. “If anything goes wrong with these animals, it’s my responsibility,” says Nekram.

He releases each of the white tigers from the cages into the display enclosure one by one for about two hours. At about 1pm he feeds the tigers — 10kg meat each in summers and 12kg each in winters. At about 4pm, Nekram raises the lever to open the doors leading to the display enclosure to allow the white tigers to return to their cages. “The tigers know it is a signal to return to the cages and they do so without any fuss. At times, however, a tiger just refuses to get back the whole night, which means I am also on duty the whole night,” says the 40-year-old, who joined the zoo in 1995.

Talking of his relationship with the animals, especially the white tigers, he says they recognise even his voice and finds his presence comforting. To demonstrate that he is not exaggerating, he asks us to call out for Khushi, the lone tigress in the display enclosure. We do, and our loud call goes unheard. Then Nekram calls out her name, the tigress begins to walk towards him.

Nekram says he is not afraid of the tigers. His only moments of fear come when he goes into the cages to clean and put food for the tigers when they are outside. “I ensure that all the gates are properly locked, though at times I fear that the tiger may somehow return to the cage while I am in there,” he says. He must also ensure that visitors to the zoo do not harass the animals. “Visitors nowadays are better behaved. There are still people, however, who throw stones at the animals to grab their attention. Only today, I caught two boys trying to pelt the tigers with stones and handed them over to the security. I have to keep an eye on visitors all day,” he says.

Nekram speaks of the animals under his care with the kind of fondness that is usually reserved for one’s family members. But then, he emphasises, the animals are indeed parts of his family. “I spend more time with them than with my children. I feel bad when an animal falls sick or is shifted to another zoo,” he says.

It took him days to recover after the death of Laxman, a white tiger who died of old age some two years ago. “I was devastated. Laxman had been under my care for years. I have realised on the job that even tigers have compassion. They appreciate the love and care I shower on them,” he says, adding, “But at times, especially when they are irritated or want to be left alone, they menacingly growl at me. But I have never been hurt by any animal so far.”

When a new animal comes to the zoo, he says, it takes him about two months to get friendly with it. “The two hyenas just do not listen to me and spend the better part of the day growling and glaring at me. But most animals finally get comfortable with me,” says Nekram, who loves watching Animal Planet and Discovery Channel.

One of his new responsibilities is to answer every Saturday and Sunday the questions of visitors as part of the “keepers’ talk” programme initiated by the zoo earlier this month. The programme aims to encourage questions on animals such as white tigers, lion tailed macaques, Indian rhinoceros, hippopotamuses and Asiatic lions. “People are curious about how animals are taken care of and the lineage of the white tigers. But the most popular animals in the zoo are giraffes, zebras and kangaroos,” he says, as he gets ready to head home at the staff quarters within the zoo complex.