It seems we just can’t protect our animals, be it in sanctuaries or zoos. In the latest incident, a 15-year-old chimpanzee that was brought from a German zoo died from heatstroke at the Delhi zoo. This is not the first such case and will not be the last one. Wildlife activists have long argued that most Indian zoos are thinly disguised ‘torture chambers’ with high mortality rates of inmates. Many have even proposed their closure. The real problem lies in the way we look at them. Zoos here are not set up to serve the needs of the animals; they are still seen purely as entertainment zones where you have amenities for visitors but not much for animals. They are poorly designed and mismanaged, lack trained staff and are not supported by expert veterinary care. Also, thanks to our high-inbreeding programmes, animals have low immunity, making them susceptible to diseases. Moreover, animals have to contend with insensitive visitors who throw objects at them or poke them.
The results of such utter mismanagement have been visible over the years. A few years ago, three endangered Al Debra tortoises died at the Alipore Zoo in Kolkata after visitors pelted them with stones to see if they were alive. In 2000, 12 tigers in Nandankanan Zoo died in a span of four days due to Trypanosomiasis, a disease transmitted through flies. Eight of them were rare white tigers. One of the main reasons for the deaths was over-breeding. In fact, most zoo authorities measure their success by the number of births they are able to show on record.
The need of the hour is to change the way we look at our zoos. Instead of being entertainment zones, they should become nature-orientation centres and botanical parks, with modern facilities and some live animal exhibits to supplement film and slide shows, nature trails and camps. The paltry resources could be restricted to 15-20 good zoos that would pursue conservation studies. According to Central Zoo Authority figures, at present, we have 163 zoos that house 14,000 birds, 12,000 mammals and 6,000 reptiles.
Since every species has different needs, and we are perpetually short of funds to meet these, it is imperative that we stop housing every exotic species we can acquire. The zoos should be home only to rare and hardy species. Make the entry tickets expensive so that more funds are available for conservation efforts. Otherwise, we will be better off doing what a wildlife expert said about the future of zoos in India: have no zoos at all.