Wildlife & Biodiversity

Forest act amendments: The perils of relying on zoos, safari parks for wildlife conservation

Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023 will allow zoos & safaris within the scope of non-forest activities, making it easier to commercialise forests, wildlife 

By Gana Kedlaya
Published: Thursday 17 August 2023
Animals in the zoo are not always calm and eager, waiting to be ‘live subjects’ of amusement in constricted spaces. Photo: iStock

The recently passed Forest Conservation Amendment Bill, 2023 can result in loss of forests at an unprecedented scale, will impact thousands of tribals sharing space with wildlife and forests and will replace some of the critical habitats with zoos and safaris. 

The Bill will allow zoos and safaris within the scope of non-forest activities — making it easier to commercialise forests, wildlife and render local communities more vulnerable. Rich ecosystems, also vast areas unscientifically graded as wastelands in India, might soon become zoos.

While the forests face threats of being replaced and wildlife displaced, increasing human-wildlife interactions, should we prioritise setting up zoos and safari parks instead? Is that what the future generations in this country want — to watch animals not free roaming in natural forests but as refugees in manufactured cages?

Two sides of a zoo

In 1400 BC, the Egyptian queen Hatshepsut displayed her loot of captured animals from faraway lands as a sign of wealth and power. In the 1700s, similar spectacles were combined with education and interactions. 

Emperors gifted wild animals to each other, a commodity as a sign of camaraderie and wealth. If one traces the origins of zoos and their inception, words such as exclusionary, expansionary, non-native, power and wealth often pop up, given that until the 19th century, it represented “royalty”. 

One of the first zoos in India, Arignar Anna Zoological Park, was set up in Chennai in 1855 by Edward Belford. It quickly expanded and needed a large area. In 1976, driven by the same colonial mindset, plans were made to shift the zoo to the Vandalur Reserve Forest, termed “barren” and hence, afforested.  

Animals in the zoo are not always calm and eager, waiting to be ‘live subjects’ of amusement in constricted spaces. A study of tigers and leopards in six Indian zoos found that 83 per cent of the tigers and 62 per cent of leopards showed stereotypic behaviour — an indication of stress.  Zoo animals have killed hundreds of people, visitors and caretakers globally. 

Other indicators besides aggression include eating faeces, pulling hair and, sometimes, self-mutilation. Gus, a polar bear in the Central Park Zoo, engaged in compulsive swimming, sometimes for 12 hours a day. Hundreds of zoo animals refuse to mate or feed their young ones, a testimony to their state of mind. 

Talking about entertainment, zoos are also about having the most charismatic species on display. But do people express solidarity and willingness to protect species besides the “aesthetic” ones? Several studies have shown that zoo visitors support or discourage species conservation depending on their perceptions and attitudes — fear and aesthetic consideration — ugly or majestic, being primary.

Though termed conservation and rescue centres, most zoos across the globe remain biased towards large mammals, colourful birds and the like. On the contrary, several endangered / threatened unpopular species do not garner the same support. 

Zoos also host rescued circus animals, injured, aged wildlife and even problem wild animals. Most of the illegally confiscated wildlife is also housed in these rescue centres. 

Globally, there has been evidence of many zoos being conduits to illegal trading. A recent study shows how 16 zoos acquired their earless monitor lizards globally, including from private individuals and non-accredited zoos. In 2022, illegally trafficked moor macaques were seized and shifted to the Assam Zoo. However, a few weeks later, political parties protested against transferring these rescued animals to the Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom in Gujarat. 

Another incident following the kangaroo rescues in north Bengal revealed that the consignments were meant for a zoo in Indore. Similar questions have been raised on animal exchange programmes by zoos and their alleged scope for illegally captured wildlife. 

Protests took place when elephants were transferred from Arunachal Pradesh to the Ambani-run rescue centre in Gujarat, part of the to-be-launched largest zoo in India, covering 280 acres and hosting over 100 diverse species from across the globe. Elephants, often spoken of as most stressed in captivity, are said to display higher rates of stereotypic behaviour after inter-zoo transfers. 

Zoos in India

India houses 155 zoos (categorised as large, medium, small, mini and rescue centres) recognised by the Central Zoo Authority (CZA), which oversees the functioning and provides technical assistance for improvement, according to the Union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change August 2023 report. While cancellations of recognition of six zoos were declared in 2021-22, 14 new ones were granted permission the same year. 

Years ago, when I visited a zoo in Ahmedabad, it was to kill time until the bus to take me to Gir arrived. It was one giant trashed couple’s park. Food packets were thrown at monkeys; some were being fed, and most big animals were catcalled. A drone of human voices deafened me in a place where almost all animals looked sideways. You could sit anywhere away from cages, and it felt like an extension of the bus stand.

In the future, if we have laws overindulging zoos, shouldn’t we also review the current state of such establishments in the country? Online reviews are pretty demonstrative — almost every zoo has at least a dozen colourful lines of criticism to its credit. However, do all zoos meet the required standards? Are they constantly reviewed? 

Here are some case studies:

Zoo 1 

Visitors: 600,000-700,000 yearly

One would think old zoos, having survived for decades, have improved facilities, management and healthy animals. Well, not really. The VOC Zoological Park was established in 1965 in Coimbatore. Many irregularities have been reported over the years, including in 2012, when animals were rumoured to be starving owing to a shortage of grass. 

A 2020 research paper highlighted that ​​of the 60 animals examined, 35 (58 per cent) were positive for parasitic infections, of which all 35 had helminth infection, and three (6 per cent) animals also had an intestinal protozoan infection. 

Status: It took over a decade for the authorities to stop renewing the license. It was finally forced to shut down for failing basic norms in 2022. It housed 532 animals.

Zoo 2:

Visitors: 2.6 million yearly

In 2020, at the Nandankanan Zoological Park, 13 tigers died, eight of them within a few hours. The government said the tigers died from stress from a cyclone that had struck nine months before the incident. Later, they confirmed that the deaths were from trypanosomiasis, a disease carried by tsetse flies. 

The veterinarians, however, alleged the tigers died from the injection of Berenil, a medicine to treat the condition. 

The same year, a crocodile was found decapitated, and two sloth bears died from suspected bacterial infection. In 2020-21, the zoo lost over 30 animals in six months during the pandemic. 

Status: Open

Zoo 3:

Visitors: 2.71 million yearly 

In 2016-17, the National Zoological Park, Delhi recorded 325 animal deaths. In 2017, six officers and employees were indicted for

  • Illegal catching of five monitor lizards
  • Submission of false statutory inventory report to the Central Zoo Authority
  • Suppression of deaths of several animals and their subsequent replacement with illegally captured animals 
  • Alleged harassment of the official who complained

In 2019, 245 animals died over 14 months, a 20 per cent death rate (5 per cent being the accepted mortality rate internationally in zoos). 

In 2020, there were 137 deaths — a total of 450 in three years. Of these, 144 died from ‘traumatic shock / shock’, according to an RTI report

Come 2023, yet another plea against the zoo in the High Court claimed besides the death of nine big cats, seven out of eight monitor lizards were missing.

Status: Open

Where to now?

Climate change continues to swiftly mute our responses of denial with the most threatening natural calamities, intensifying year after year. The economic, ecological and psychological costs of losing a forest and its rich biodiversity cannot be replaced with zoos, which are ex-situ conservation sites. These unscientific policies and incorrigible capitalism are wiping away the last treasured vestiges of learning, our critical connection to the natural and spiritual world. 

A word frequently used by writers and editors today in India, Jumbo, in reality, does not mean elephants. Favoured by Queen Victoria, Jumbo was the name of an African elephant that lived in the London Zoo in 1865-82 and worked in a circus. 

Do we care less for the historical genesis of words or practices we have adopted for fear of shifting our ground? What is it that makes us want to tame the wild? Or render it less free? 

The memories a forest carries, the interactions of its millions of wild residents, is a harmony that rings out loud and poetic, sans human sounds, nothing a zoo can ever imitate. 

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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