He is no ordinary zoo keeper at Chhatbir. Motiram is a humble descendant from a sheep herding family of nearby Chhat village and is classified as a ‘Class 4’ employee. But, whenever a zoo keeper of a particular species is indisposed, and the species is not an easy one to manage such as tigers, lions, etc, Motiram fills the breach with aplomb. Or, when animals are to be transported to distant zoos under an exchange programme, it is Motiram who travels with the traumatised animals in the back of the truck and sizes up their situation accurately to administer water, food and rest at the correct time.
‘’Even some officers address Motiram with the honorific, ‘Ji’, as his counsel is always credible and pragmatic,’’ reveals zoo director Manish Kumar.
‘’Motiram’s understanding of animal behaviour amazes me. If there is a crisis at the zoo, it is Motiram who assesses the ground situation correctly and provides feedback on the basis of which we frame a management response. He spends his duty time observing and re-observing his wards, caring for their needs and not wiling away his time in tea and gossip. His role is crucial in the deer safari where we have more than 110 animals and any contagious disease could wipe them out.
But Motiram knows virtually each specimen and will pick the most subtle signs of illness. We rely on him when medicine is to be administered as a dose packed in a jaggery ball. He diligently pursues the sick deer and ensures the medicine is delivered to the patient,’’ explains Kumar.
In the 2014-15 winter, sambar stags inflicted wanton injuries on the herd. The zoo was at a loss to understand this spurt in violence. The fact was that the zoo had doubled the jaggery given to deer to keep them warm. But dominant stags cornered a lion’s share of the increased jaggery and that fomented over-aggression. Motiram identified the malady and on his advice, jaggery was reduced. The stags calmed down.
MAMA’S HIDING PLACE
The flourishing population of dainty, prancing Chinkaras (Indian gazelle) at Chhatbir zoo owes much to Motiram, who separated warring males at right moments, imprisoned rogue males, and allowed peaceful breeding of select males with willing females. ‘’The zoo had got nine Chinkaras from the Pillani zoo in Rajasthan. Chinkaras were not easy to breed in captivity and some zoos had failed in this endeavour. We tasked Motiram with their breeding management and the result was that Chinkaras grew to 17. We now barter them with other zoos,’’ said Chhatbir block officer Harpal Singh. Very recently, the Chinkara parivaar at Chhatbir was blessed with two more fawns.
Motiram knows where each female deer or antelope has hidden her fawn. ‘’Once the fawn is born, either within the herd or in the dense parts of the deer safari or enclosure, the mother takes the fawn to a secluded spot. Only Blackbucks don’t hide their fawns, the rest of the species at the zoo do so. This is the wild instinct to shield the fawn from a carnivore. It is not that the mother fears the herds in the safari will trample upon her fawn as deer/antelope are very sensible and will not harm another one’s offspring. The mother steals away to the spot, where she keeps the fawn in hiding for at least a week. The fawn dutifully sticks to the hiding spot. Sometimes, when a zoo keeper chances upon the hiding fawn, it tends to shrivel up and play lifeless to escape detection,’’ explained Motiram.
LAMMERGEIER IN A LOO
Raptors or birds of prey have held apex position in human cultural history, being emblematic of nobility and winged power. These powerful birds, which encompass hawks, eagles, owls, falcons etc, do not find such resonance in contemporary India even though raptors as a group of specialised birds face decline and doom. Last week’s Punjab State-Level Philatelic Exhibition (PUNPEX 2016) at the DAV College (Chandigarh) reflected this relegation to a ‘’dusty, forgotten shelf’’. Among the 266 glass-framed displays were a rich representation of raptor postal stamps. Stamps from across the globe depicted the Lammergeier, Long-eared owl, Peregrine falcon, Osprey, White-tailed eagle, Kestrel etc, with an aesthetic touch.
An exhibit was devoted to the Northern goshawk (Punjab’s state bird). The goshawk stamps, for example, were educative, informing the viewers that this bird is found across many nations. There was a rare first-day cover of the Shaheen falcon stamp issued by Pakistan post office on January 20, 1986, to highlight conservation concerns over the endangered bird.
The Shaheen finds numerous references in the poetry of Allama Muhammad Iqbal and a class of Pakistani nuclear missiles is named after this premier hunting bird. But sadly, these raptor exhibits were relegated to dimly-lit rows at the auditorium’s back-end, which was suffused with draughts from odorous loos.