A visit to a zoo always sounds like a fun-filled activity for kids and adults alike. Bannerghatta Biological Park (BBP) located on the outskirts of Bangalore in Anekal district is no exception. Easy accessibility, parking spots, surprisingly well-organised ticket counters, and numerous food kiosks make the outing a delightful experience.
A near-perfect picture? Not quite.
What started off as a picnic spot in 1971 is now a notified ‘large zoo’ spread over 320 hectares housing over 1,500 animals. All zoos in India come under the purview of the Central Zoo Authority (CZA), New Delhi, and a state-level body, which in Karnataka is the Zoo Authority of Karnataka (ZAK), Mysore. The CZA is a statutory body constituted under the Wildlife (Protection) Act to monitor the ‘standards and norms for housing, upkeep, healthcare, and overall management of the animals in Indian zoos.’
Master plan for better enclosures
Like many other zoos in the country, BBP has also submitted a master plan-2010-2019 stressing particularly better animal housing facilities on a par with the norms prescribed by the CZA. The plan points out that nearly 50 percent of the outdated enclosures at BBP need to be upgraded and around 15-20 of them replaced.
With animals being acquired haphazardly over the years, some enclosures such as those of Himalayan black bears and lion-tailed macaques are considerably smaller than what the CZA norms prescribe, admits BBP Executive Director Milo Tago. "BBP’s development was arbitrary and unscientific. The CZA came into existence in 1992. Only then did standardization come into place," he adds.
Tago stresses that dismantling the existing structures would take time and considerable expenditure. "That is why we have submitted a 20-year master plan. Until new enclosures come up, I cannot move the existing animals out of their place," he adds. "Right now even my office is not according to the CZA-specified norms. If I demolish this, where will I sit?"
Do tourists’ interests come first?
While the plan awaits the CZA’s approval, it is surprising to note that the park has well-developed infrastructure for tourists. Paved walkways, sheltered seating areas, and even a playground for children are spread over the park. Does that mean the animals’ welfare is being sidestepped over tourists’ interests?
Tago admits that tourist facilities have received a lot of attention. "BBP has to stand on its own feet. The tourist revenue is re-ploughed into the zoo’s functioning."
This, he points out, includes the care and feeding of animals and salaries of both the keepers and the Forest Department staff. "If we do not make the tourist experience enjoyable, how will we keep the zoo running?"
Tago’s logic does not seem flawed. In the last five years, the zoo’s revenue has been on an upward trend. From about Rs 8.39 lakhs in 2004-2005, BBP’s annual income has shot up to a whopping Rs 6.4 crores in 2008-2009.
However, both Tago and Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (APCCF), Wildlife, B K Singh assert that this has not come at the cost of the wildlife. "There is a separate two-year master plan chalked out to better tourist facilities," Tago says.
Singh adds, "We are only waiting for the CZA to approve the comprehensive master plan for animal facilities. Once that comes through, we will start work on that."
However, both refuse to give a timeline for the work.
On being questioned about the recent reports on animal deaths, both officials claim that the media has got the facts wrong. According to BBP, 275 animal deaths have occurred in the past five months and only a few, which were part of the regular exhibit, died of natural death. The rest like the red-eared slider turtles and Japanese quails are exotic animals brought into the country for illegal pet trade and are not part of the regular exhibits. Little is known about the conditions they are subjected to such as starvation, exhaustion, or stress.
The main problem, Tago stresses, is that the zoo is invariably asked to assume the responsibility of any smuggled, illegally detained animals that enter the country. "For instance, there were 800 juvenile red-eared slider turtles seized from a Singapore flight at the Bangalore airport by the customs. Following a court order, we received them in a sack."
Handlers often have no knowledge of how to care for these animals. "We usually look up online to find out what to do. Where do I find the money for these animals?" Tago asks.
Enclosures for such animals are usually makeshift and there is no information on their medical history. To minimize spread of diseases, they have to be kept away from the regular animals. Singh, however, says that this does not deter the zoo from accepting their care. "So far we have not refused a single animal…. As a government body, we have to be willing to incur some losses."
A rescue centre for leopards
Even with the existing constraints, BBP seems to have some ambitious plans up its sleeves. Apart from a rescue centre for lions and tigers, the ZAK has in September proposed that a rescue centre be set up for leopards at the zoo. This is in response to the apparent rise in the incidents of leopard cubs being found deserted in agricultural lands on the fringes of forest areas all over the state. "We’ve found that a large number of leopard cubs get abandoned (by their mothers)," explains Singh and points out that the onus of raising these cubs then falls on the Forest Department as the cubs are too young to fend for themselves. "These cubs will be brought to the rescue centre."
Singh feels that the ZAK would not have picked BBP for this task had it not been operating according to the prescribed standards. Tago seems a little more prudent with praise. "We have to make some big changes but we have come a long way also."