Is Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, known as the ultimate macho man of world politics, a role model for Maharashtra’s agriculture minister, Balasaheb Thorat?
On his 56th birthday last year, Putin got a tiger cub as a present. He wasted no time in organising a photo shoot on the veranda of his Moscow home: as the shutters clicked, Putin stroked the 10-kg cub that lay in a wicker basket.
Thorat, with a cellphone in one hand, stroked a cub with the other at Nagpur’s Maharajbagh Zoo on Saturday. The photographers were there too.
On Tuesday, the Delhi-based Central Zoo Authority (CZA) has sent a show-cause notice to the administration of Maharajbaugh Zoo in Nagpur, asking why the minister was allowed inside the cage.
The action violates Section 38J of the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972, which states that no person shall tease or cause disturbance to the animals in a zoo.
It has also turned out that Thorat — succumbing either to the allure that tigers and lions, among all beasts, have for humans; or taking a dipstick survey of his own machismo; or treating the cub like, as he has suggested, a child at a home to which he has been invited — had asked for the most docile of the cubs to pet.
Forest officials, who had spent months with the three cubs now in the zoo, and had hand-raised them after they were brought to the zoo from the wild, were called in. They suggested the one that was likely to be the meekest.
“This was to help the minister in his act of bravado,” said a forest official, who was part of the team that rescued the cubs from the forests of Junona in Chandrapur in November 2008.
The zoo, maintained by Punjab Krishi Vidyapeeth, had come under scrutiny in 2006 when Central authorities wanted to close it down, alleging substandard level of upkeep of animals and their healthcare facilities. It was cleared of all objections raised by CZA in 2007.
Speaking to HT from Delhi, CZA scientist Brij Gupta said: “There can be a six-year jail term for an individual if he commits this kind of violation.”
The deadline for reply was Wednesday, he added. “We want to know if the cubs were sedated to allow the minister inside the cage. It will be even a bigger violation in that case,” he said.
Unlikely, said the sources. “These cubs were hand-raised and are familiar with human interactions. The authorities also chose the most docile one,” said a senior official of the state wildlife wing.
In a damage-control exercise, a group of officers led by zoo veterinarian S.S. Bawaskar met senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh on Tuesday to convince him that the minister’s act was legal.
Conservationists felt the minister’s act amounts to teasing. “It could have proved dangerous for him,” said Kishor Rithe, president of Satpuda Foundation, an NGO working for wildlife conservation.
Close contact between endangered species and humans is restricted by zoos worldwide to reduce the animals’ trauma and the risk of infection.
A social worker from Nagpur Umesh Choube moved the Nagpur bench of Bombay High court, alleging that the minister had violated country’s wildlife protection law. The petition is likely to come up before a bench of the court on August 24 for hearing.
(With inputs from Pradip Kumar Maitra)