Zoos: Best option to save vanishing wildlife
Reuben David, a great naturalist and champion of wildlife, who was believed to have the power to speak to animals, created the Ahmadabad zoo. People used to come from near and far to see this man who could go inside the cages of lions and tigers. During his time, Ahmadabad zoo became one of the most remarkable zoos of India and contributed substantially to conservation and research. My father Dr. Raza H. Tehsin, a naturalist and animal behavioural expert who has been the advisor to the government of Rajasthan on wildlife, took me to meet the man. I was awed by all the stuffed animals in Mr. David’s chambers and the colourful feathers of pheasants that he gifted to me.
Baba Dioum had said, “In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we understand. We will understand only what we’re taught.” Perhaps that is the reason the greatest conservators of all times have been hunters like Jim Corbett and naturalists like Reuben David.
Jerry Mander in his book Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television wrote that after sometime if you ask a child “Where do oranges grow?” he’ll reply, “In the supermarket.” Most city dwelling children, alienated from daily interaction with nature, are suffering from what is termed as nature deficit disorder. Our education system has failed to form a bond between the young ones and the great outdoors. An interesting, attractive place is required for education and awareness in conservation. It should stimulate their interest and provide a competition to internet, television and playstations. A zoo is one of the best options available. Curriculum related topics can be explained easily and training and projects on endangered species can be conducted in zoo premises. Events like celebration of animal birth or a new addition to the zoo will not fail to generate interest in children. Wildlife Week, World Forestry Day etc. are already being celebrated in many zoos world over.
No one can remain unmoved after seeing an animal at close quarters. It always generates interest, curiosity and wonder. A child’s thrill during a visit to a zoo is unsurpassed. Zoos are places where children get to see the animals, which they’ve heard of in stories. They get to observe various animals, how they live and their behaviour and food habits. It gives a form to their imagination and opens up a whole new world of curiosity. Many of them grow up to become crusaders of wildlife protection. Those childhood visits to the zoos and jungles with my father sowed the seed of nature in me.
With the forest cover depleted to a bare minimum, animals poached to extinction and holidays in wildlife sanctuaries and reserves the interest or the privilege of a few – to bond with nature seems a distant possibility. Zoos and zoological parks remain the only places for the multitudes to connect with wildlife and be sensitised towards it. It is extremely difficult to spot animals in the wild. Many inhabitants of villages bordering the jungles pass their whole lives without seeing a wild animal. The largest chunk of visitors to small town zoos like Udaipur’s Gulab Bagh Zoo in India are villagers.
People of various strata of society, different income and educational levels, ages and socio-economic backgrounds visit zoos. Traditionally, zoos have provided a large vista of possibilities to educate people and bring them closer to nature. According to CEE India’s report, “In India there are more than 150 zoos, and they attract as many as 50 million visitors annually… Zoos’ potential for making people of all ages aware of the threats to the global ecology is unlimited.” According to the Assistant Director Anoma Priyadarshani of the Department of National Zoological Gardens of Sri Lanka, four million visitors, both local and foreign, visit the Dehiwela Zoo annually. And the number is growing. Colombo’s Dehiwela Zoo has a thumping selection of animals including albino cobras, albino koels, a pair of wild horses (the rarest of rare animals) and an albino crow! There are approximately 100 species of mammals, 110 species of birds, 35 species of reptiles, 65 species of fish, 6 species of amphibians, 30 species of invertebrates and 10 species of marine invertebrates. The vast compound with towering tropical trees is complete with a bird aviary, butterfly garden, aquarium, serpentarium, museum and zoo library. The zoo has its own publications, educational lectures and zoo projects. For children there are school and education programmes, kids’ corner and performances of elephants and sea lions. Instead of the hotels or homes, birthday parties can be conducted in the beautiful gardens of the zoo. They even provide lawn with animals.
The Dehiwela Zoo hospital provides veterinary graduate, undergraduate and voluntary training, does research in preventive medicines, provides medical and surgical treatments and undertakes laboratory and post mortem investigations. A significant number of local and foreign students get trained there annually in wild animal health related issues. On our last visit to this zoo we saw hippo babies with their mother and a lioness taking care of her litter born in captivity. Those are signs of a pulsating and successful zoo.
Animals are exchanged between zoos of the world. The Maharaj of Rewa in Madhya Pradesh, India, made history when he captured a white tiger in the wild. In time, generations of this white tiger have spread across the world. Zoos provide shelter to many orphan and stray animals, saving them an untimely end.
The states of many countries have failed to implement wildlife laws effectively and provide proper enforcement response. Political commitment to prevention of wildlife crime, human encroachment in protected areas and habitat destruction has remained a low priority over the decades. Man animal conflict continues to intensify. The Wildlife Protection Society of India estimated that at least 3,189 leopards were killed since 1994 to 2010. Leopards are especially targeted as they attack livestock and enter human habitation. They are brutally killed by poison, snares and gunshots. “For every tiger skin, there are at least 7 leopard skins in the haul.” The wild animals today need protection and zoos are one of the safe havens for them.
Some animal activists talk about closing down zoos. What is the alternate plan to save various critically endangered species from being extinct? Banning zoos, for all we know, might accelerate their extinction. Zoos provide breeding places for the species that face a threat of extinction in the jungles. When a species is confined to only one place it faces a huge threat of being wiped away by a disease, famine or epidemic. “The extinction rate today may be more than 1000 times the normal biological rate of 1-10 species extinctions per year. Species are becoming extinct even before anyone has a chance to discover them. This rapid extinction rate is due to a range of factors, caused by a human population of over 6 billion, including: over-exploitation of natural resources, hunting, introduction of exotic and domestic species, pollution, habitat loss and fragmentation, and global climate change” (The Role of Zoos in Conservation). According to scientists, we are currently facing the sixth Age of Extinction after the dinosaurs, caused by one factor alone – humans.
Many species are bred in zoos and reintroduced/relocated in the jungles, which are their natural habitats. Sangai or the Dancing deer of Manipur is a highly endangered species. Its multiplying numbers in captivity provide an insurance against its extinction in the forests. The small, inconsequential zoo of Udaipur in India has provided many captive-bred cheetals to be released in the wild. The crocodiles bred in the zoo have been released in Udaipur lakes, from where they’d dwindled and disappeared due to commercial hunting.
Yes, there are issues of smaller spaces for animals which can be improved upon. So can they be for humans. Walk into a shanty in Mumbai which houses a family of six and you’ll know what I mean. You can never substitute an animal’s territory that stretches in square kilometres or that of birds, which goes on for cubic square kilometres. Even the Singapore zoo, considered the best in Asia, has many enclosures, which are quite small. While one can work towards these issues, closing down zoos or shifting them to far off places where not many visitors can visit is not a solution. Far from it.
It may seem cruel from a human perspective to cage animals and deny them their natural habitat, but not much of it is left anyway due to expanding human population and our so-called development. There are many advantages to live in captivity for the animals. Increased life span (most animals’ life span doubles in captivity), medical care and abundance of food (in the wild many of them go hungry for days), protection from poachers and villagers aggrieved due to man animal conflict are to name a few. “Indian Leopards are estimated to live up to about nine years of age, although it is difficult to track them in the wild. When kept in captivity, this lifespan increases dramatically to well over 20 years. This increase is due to an abundance of food and water, a lack of threat from hunters or locals and prompt medical care.”
The issue should not be to close the zoos, which are not well-maintained, but to put more investment into creating a naturalised environment for the animals, keep them healthy and well-fed, facilitate national and international captive breeding programmes, carry out research programmes in the field of zoology and veterinary, restore endangered species, understand animal behaviour, improve animal husbandry, develop conservation initiatives, and educate the visitors. Zoos are a sustainable way of conservation. They provide life system education and have immense educational, conservation and research value.
We need to take a holistic and not a puritan approach confined to the narrow perspective of cruelty against animals defined by human standards. Some of the notions that we wave away as cruelty today may be the only remaining links that we have with the natural world – one amongst them being the zoos. The real need today is to see the broader perspective if we really want to conserve that which we’ve already destroyed to a great extent.
(The writer is the author of fiction and non-fiction books on wildlife.)