A broken snout, an injured arm, a hurt eye—each crocodile was different from the last. I was at the Crocodile Rehabilitation Centre, located near Tamil Nadu’s popular Hogenakkal Falls, on a special trip arranged by Richard anna and his wife Jeno akka. They were our hosts in Natrampalyam, a village 20 kilometres away from the falls, where two of my classmates and I had interned in 2016. The Centre was brimming with school students and tourists, carefully observing—and sometimes annoyingly attracting—the crocodiles, excited to see the reptiles at such close proximity.
I liked this zoo. It seemed to have a purpose behind keeping the crocodiles in mesh enclosures—these crocs were often rescued by the Forest Department from various conflict situations, and the Centre aims to help them rest and recoup, and then rehabilitate them back into the wild. “But, some of them live here forever if their injuries do not heal,” Richard anna informed us. While I looked at the crocodiles, safe in their enclosures, I thought of my other zoo experiences, which had all been in public zoos. An elephant at Delhi’s National Zoological Park, chained from his legs and swaying his head slightly, an indicator of stress that is ironically mistaken for ‘dancing’, something I learnt through the course of interviews for this piece. A lion at Mysuru’s Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens that roared and pounced against his cage, leaving the spectators scrambling. A sick and forlorn giraffe at Hyderabad’s Nehru Zoological Park.
As of 2020, there are 149 zoos in the country recognized under the Wild Life (Protection) Act, 1972, which include publicly-funded zoos as well as private ones. The newest feather to this pool of private zoos is Reliance Industries’ proposed 280-acre zoo and animal rescue sanctuary called ‘Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom’ in Gujarat’s Jamnagar.
“Zoos play an important outreach and educational role, especially for those who cannot afford to pay for either the safaris in national parks or the travel to them. Even then, the chances of actually seeing the animal there are very few,” says Avinash Krishnan, Director of Science & Conservation at the Indian vertical of A Rocha, a network of global conservationist organisations. “But [instead], what we often see in zoos are the compromising welfare conditions in which the animals are kept. It’s a huge challenge to replicate an animal’s natural habitat.”
Krishnan and I are not alone in being witness to the stress experienced by animals held in captivity, not to mention their discernibly poor overall health. The numbers reflect our experiences: between 2018 and 2020, Delhi’s public National Zoological Park lost 450 animals. These included two tigers due to renal failure and senility, and many other animals due to “traumatic shock”. In Mumbai’s public Veermata Jijamata Udyan Zoo, 30 freshwater turtles died of disease between 2019 and 2020, along with a few deer. This then begs the question, when animals’ lives are compromised in zoos, why does India continue to operate them?
The Business of Zookeeping
In India, most zoos emerged from private collections or menageries in the early 19th century and developed for entertainment and recreational purposes until the 1970s. From school trips to Sunday family visits, zoos are now popular tourist sites both within and outside the cities they are located in. With this heavy footfall comes revenue. Between 2014-15, Mysuru’s public Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens broke its own records by earning ₹16 crore from its gate collections, thanks to a footfall of over 30 lakh people. This upward trend continued till the pre-pandemic year of 2019-20, when the zoo earned ₹26.91 crore from gate revenue alone.
“[Public] Zoos employ a vast range of human resources, ranging from feeders to managers to supervisors to veterinarians,” says Suparna Ganguly, an award-winning activist and former member of the Indian government’s Task Force on Elephants. “They serve as good business models and provide revenue to the state governments.”
The Bastion found this trend mirrored in four other large public zoos. Assam’s State Zoo earned ₹2 crore in 2018-19, a slight increase from its previous year’s earnings. Surat’s Shyamaprasad Mukherjee Zoological Garden collected revenue of ₹1.86 crore in 2017-18, which increased the next year, while Madhya Pradesh’s Gandhi Zoological Park consistently increased its revenues from ₹8 crore in 2014 till the pandemic year, except in 2016 when the zoo was shut for a few months due to a bird flu outbreak. Patiala Zoo also witnessed an increase from ₹18 lakh in 2014-15 to ₹1 crore in 2016-17.
The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdowns heavily impacted revenues of both public and private zoos, with many seeking donations and issuing calls to adopt animals in a bid to earn revenue.
“When zoos operate, it’s not just the municipal or the state governments that earn revenue [if the zoo is a public enterprise]. The area around it also develops as a tourist destination. So, the land value around the premises also increases, apart from the many hotels, restaurants, and other tourist attractions that bloom,” shares Gnaneswar Ch, Project Coordinator at the Madras Crocodile Bank, a trust established in 1979 in Chennai.
Clearly, for their varied forms of revenue generation, zoos continue to be important to state treasuries. Perhaps this is why the National Zoo Policy was implemented in 1998, with the aim of streamlining their administration. The policy was in line with an institutional shift that took place a few years prior in 1992, when the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) was formed under the Ministry of Environment, Forests, and Climate Change, and became the statutory body responsible for overseeing zoos. With both these developments came a different government justification for continuing zoos and establishing new ones—conservation.
Some Animals Need Zoos
In the first line of its guidelines, the CZA aims to “develop self-sustaining, genetically, and behaviourally viable populations of animals pertaining to endangered species in the wild, for use as gene pool [sic] to be used for long-term conservation of these species and to muster support of the zoo visitors in the national efforts for conservation of wildlife.” So, how well do Indian zoos fare in serving this purpose?
Madras Crocodile Bank reinforces the role of zoos in conservation and gene pools. The centre is home to 17 of the world’s 23 species of crocodiles, so in case even a rare or endangered species goes extinct in the wild, they have the gene lineage for breeding and releasing the member back into the wild.
Forty years ago, 250 kilometres north of Chennai’s coast, such an experiment saw success. In 1980, the critically endangered Gharial was bred in captivity for the first time at Odisha’s public Nandankanan Zoological Park in an attempt to increase the reptile’s population. A project that began with a male and two female crocodiles led to 206 successful hatchings in the next five years. In 1986, 81 of these Gharials were released in Odisha’s Mahanadi river system located in the vicinity of the zoo. This process continued in the subsequent years, while a smaller proportion of Gharials was transferred to other zoological centres.
“However, successful examples of such captive breeding and reintroduction are infrequent,” says Arjun Kamdar, a wildlife scientist and science communicator based in Assam. “Reintroduction requires a set of resources and a set-up [of care] right from when the animal is very young. The animal is typically first introduced to a soft-release enclosure in a smaller space similar to its natural habitat and is constantly monitored before being let out into larger spaces to live independently. Very few zoos are equipped with the resources to make this happen.”
It’s not a coincidence that I have mostly mentioned crocodiles so far. Some animals do better than others in captivity, and reptiles are one such group. “Most reptiles, including snakes, have a low metabolic rate [they need less energy to function and do not need to forage constantly for food]. So, for them, enclosures are not as problematic,” Gnaneswar says. “For larger mammals, like elephants, leopards, and tigers that need to move around a lot for food, zoos can become cramped spaces that compromise their quality of life.”
For some larger animals too, zoos can become the last safe haven. “Sometimes, a few animals can be doomed to a life in captivity,” explains Kamdar. “For instance, those seized from the illegal wildlife trade or those who cannot be rehabilitated in the wild as their injuries cannot be healed fully. For them, zoos become a good option to live safely, provided they are kept in healthy environments.”
While zoos can become a ray of hope for animals who otherwise might have to be put to sleep, their efficient functioning is based on a premise—that zoos should have the facilities to take care of the wildlife they host. But, as evidence shows, this is not always the case, and many zoos slip through the cracks of the CZA’s monitoring. As a result, they continue to function as subpar ‘havens’ for wildlife.
Despite Poor Conditions, Weak Monitoring Allows Some Zoos to Run
It was early winter of 2014, and I was awestruck by what I was seeing. In the middle of the urban chaos that Delhi is, right in front of my eyes were hundreds of spotted deer in a closed compound. Behind them were the characteristic domes and minarets of Mughal architecture, monuments weathered over centuries, and avid joggers on their daily run. The feeding juvenile deer hopping around against this backdrop of red bricks made for a picturesque view at South Delhi’s Deer Park in Hauz Khas.
Just a few months earlier, in July of 2014, the CZA issued a cancellation license to Deer Park, which is classified as a ‘mini zoo’. The license was ordered after the CZA found the mini zoo flouting norms like building separate enclosures for male and female deer and poor population records, both of which led to in-breeding and over-population of the deer compared to the foliage available. By the time I visited in early December, the CZA had decided to review its order, as it faced a big challenge—how would the 200 plus deer be relocated, and to where, if the park closed? The Delhi Development Authority, which managed the Deer Park, “promised” proper population control measures while accepting that it would be a challenging task.
“CZA is a relatively new organization [formed in 1992]. A lot of zoos in India came up before it was formed that did not have to procure approvals from the Authority as new zoos have to. For new zoos, the CZA ensures a proper assessment before approving the enterprise,” said a wildlife scientist who wished to remain anonymous. “For the older ones and the ones that have gotten [CZA] approvals, monitoring the [functioning of] zoos is an important element [of animal safety] which is not always an efficient process.”
The scientist’s comments resonate with a Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) report. In Karnataka, the report found that as of 2020, only 9 out of the state’s 13 zoos were under the jurisdiction of the Zoo Authority of Karnataka, which is a state-government arm of the CZA that ensures zoos comply with Central government rules, regulations, and guidelines. The CAG report also found that while two zoos in Chitradurga and Kalaburagi districts were suspended in 2019 by the CZA for not complying with guidelines on animal upkeep and health, they stayed open for public visits.
The report also highlighted the underutilization of funds. Karnataka’s Bannerghatta Biological Park, Mysore’s Sri Chamarajendra Zoological Gardens, and Kamalpur’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee Zoological Park—all public zoos—had planned to spend over ₹11 crore between 2014 and 2019 towards veterinary care. In practice, they spent only ₹6.2 crore. “This had a negative impact on animal health,” the CAG report said, constantly indicating the ineffective CZA monitoring of resources being used in the state.
This is not to say that the CZA lags behind in all aspects of its mandate. “The CZA is very strict about the process in cases of animal exchanges [between zoos],” the scientist adds. “It is very specific about the paperwork needed and the requirements to complete such exchanges.”
Zoos Are Meant to Provide Education, But Not All Succeed
Gnaneswar strongly believes that his career took a serious turn only when he worked at the Indira Gandhi Zoological Park in Vizag, closely watching animals in the flesh and blood. He believes zoos play an important educational role for other younger people interested in wildlife, which is why they should continue to operate.
For Kamdar, this educational role has to be designed carefully. “For certain species such as dolphins, these spaces [zoos] are not reflective of the species in their natural habitat, conveying a non-representative image of the species and its ecology,” he argues. “Moreover, in order to be able to play an educational role, an emphasis needs to be laid on interpretation. The Madras Crocodile Bank Trust near Chennai is a great example of that, as there is a set of trained volunteers and a workforce that helps communicate [ecological] knowledge to visitors.
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Gnaneswar sheds more light on the Crocodile Bank’s work. “While most [public] zoos are unable to go beyond their premises for outreach and education [as doing so is not within their mandate], we try doing this differently.” Gnaneswar’s work specialises with snakes and extends beyond zoos into policy circles, working with communities on snake bites, and mitigating human-wildlife conflicts, especially with crocodiles. A Rocha’s Krishnan also contributes to education and outreach for different audiences. “We bring in indigenous ecosystem knowledge on plants and animals [gathered during research], and develop different curriculum formats with the help of it. In the zoo inside Bannerghatta National Park, we have built capacity with field biologists and veterinarians who reach out to the tourists to tell them about the animals’ ecology and behavioural habits. With this, we advocate to conserve them more so in their natural spaces,” Krishnan says.
I remember visiting the Delhi Zoo as a young adult and being happy with only one space—the biome created for painted storks. Unlike the rest of the zoo marked with enclosures, this space was open for the storks to fly in and out, and even had an artificial pond with fish for them to feed on. It was only much later I got to know that painted storks are inland migratory birds who fly into Delhi from colder regions to breed and nest, with many of them choosing this refuge in Delhi to do so. If I had experienced the services that A Rocha or Madras Crocodile Bank provide animals, the role of zoos for conservation or breeding purposes would perhaps not have been lost on me. On the contrary, I grew up despising zoos, comparing the animal’s caged experiences with documentaries on their lives in the wild that I saw on National Geographic and Discovery Channel, and in the National Parks I visited.
As the journey of writing this piece taught me, zoos exist today for a variety of conservational and educational purposes. But, a weak monitoring system negates this purpose, as it misses sub-par zoos with minimal facilities for the animals they seek to ‘protect’. With a stronger monitoring mechanism, the Central Zoo Authority would be able to take stronger action against zoos that flout norms related to animal health and upkeep.
Yet, the Authority will face more roadblocks on the way, including limited resources: only a small portion of its budget of less than ₹12 crore is set aside for zoos. Since the onset of the pandemic, the Centre is now contemplating shifting their business models to public-private-partnerships, by involving state governments, civic bodies, businesses, and private individuals. With that, hopefully, more resources are spent on animals in the zoos and their health, instead of just on the comfort of the spectators visiting them.
Featured image: a tiger enclosure at Kamla Nehru Zoological Garden, Ahmedabad, Gujarat; courtesy of Emmanuel Dyan (CC BY 2.0).