Sunday, 13 February 2011


Went to the Jawaharlal Nehru Zoological Park. I had visited it about 30 years back and had been pretty impressed. But then, when you are 41, it’s a depressing experience.

Weekend, right? Lots of people. We entered the zoo, lone patches of colour in a black sea of the burkha clad. And their children. Twenty bucks per adult, ten rupees for a camera. No Plastics, please. Pushed our way through the crowds to the first enclosure.  Chelonidis Nigra. Why Nigra, I wonder. They looked more gray-green than black. There were two in the enclosure. The first had splashes of paint – or some other white stuff on its side. The other had several pieces of well masticated chewing gum stuck on its shell.

I usually like kids, but at that moment, I admit I wanted to commit absolute and total childicide at that point. Starting with the ones hooting and giggling and trying to add their contributions to the poor creature’s shell.

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Things got slightly better when we went through the monkey enclosures.

There were some good specimens – lion tail macaques, the ubiquitous langurs and there was this specimen – Captain Allan from Tintin would have wondered who this guy reminded him of. “What a conk” Indeed.


And then there were these. I had to take a picture of her bottom.

I don’t know if you’ve read Gerald Durrell’s The Stationary Ark. The book details the setting up of the Jersey Wildlife Preservation Trust at Les Augres Manor in Jersey. There’s a bit where he recounts a visit by Princess Anne (The horsefaced Brit one)  and he’s showing her around and he comes to the baboon cage. The baboon courteously shows the princess his bottom, and Gerry, at his babbling best – says something like – “What a splendid bottom, wouldn’t you love to have a bottom like that?”. The princess examines the proffered posterior closely and then, replies –“No, Mr. Durrell, I would not”.

Hyderabad 027 Then it was off to the carnivore cages. The first one we saw was a reasonably large enclosure. And at point at the greatest possible distance from all visitors, a white tiger lay sleeping. I don’t know if he was moth eaten or magnificent, all I could feel was a bit of disappointment that he had neither company nor energy.

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The next enclosure was paisa vasool. This one contained a full grown male tiger, and was he magnificent. Huge bugger, and obviously hungry. He was prowling up and down the the  keeper’s door and didn’t mind posing for pictures.

Cormac Standish Varadachari

Beyond that was the Jaguar enclosure. After Cormac Standish Varadachari, the lone jaguar wasn't impressive. But the keeper was feeding him, and he drew the crowds. The jaguar enclosure was much more of a cage. A green painted dome of green painted wire.  Beyond the jaguar enclosure was an identical dome – this time for a distinctly mangy looking leopard. From there, it was onto the large and comfortable layout of Hyderabad’s own Keith and Roderick – a couple of sacked out lions.

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The board outside their quarters was titled “Panthera Leo”. So when did that happen? The last I knew, lions were Felis Leo. So when did they stop being Felis?  And another thing. There were two males in the enclosure. No females. And both seemed content with the situation. Have they resigned themselves to permacelibacy? Or just occasional buggery? Don’t they have issues over territory?

Hyderabad 046Things got bleaker from there. A single  dhole. A single striped hyena. A single Asian Black bear, looking sad and forlorn. It was sitting alone in its enclosure, looking at us, as though begging us to get it out of there. There were two trees in its territory, and both had their trunks covered by rusted sheets. Didn’t they need the wood on those trunks for their territorial markings?
It’s possible the bear was completely happy in its solitude. Maybe the metal sheets rolled around the tree trunks were for its own protection. But I couldn’t shake of the feeling of despair that seemed to radiate out from the creature.

I couldn’t take much more. I just had to get out of there. But my cousins were tired of walking, and we went to a soft drink and snack shop within the grounds. The place was packed. Every now and then a pair of trash collectors would struggle their way through the messy picnickers, picking up discarded “Mineral Water” bottles – to be returned to the stall for Rs. 10 per bottle. Tetrapacks and plastic bags don’t fetch anything, so they remain as litter.

We went down to the reptile house. A rat snake. A rock python. A reticulated python, fresh from moult, its old skin discarded near the glass. A Russel’s  viper. A cobra. A vine snake. A monitor lizard or two. No hamadryads. No kraits. No pit vipers or saw scales. Seemed pitiful, compared to the Snake Park. 

The place left me with mixed emotions. One part was irritation at my own ignorance. Were the animals happy? The Hyderabad zoo is supposed to be one of the biggest in India. They claim to

“ have successfully bred exotic and indigenous animals and birds in captivity including the Indian rhino, Asiatic lion, tiger, panther, gaur, orangutan, crocodile, and python. To counter the depletion of the natural populations, we have bred several animals at the zoo and rehabilitated them in various deer parks and sanctuaries.

But I didn’t see orang utan or rhino. And most of the carnivores were single specimens. Its possible that they had their mates stashed away in zenanas, out of sight. This is Hyderabad, after all.

Why is it so hard to realize that zoos are vital here. That you have a better chance of building tiny but increasing captive populations than saving them in the wild? Oh yes, saving them in the wild is better, no arguments there – but how is anyone going to do it with our gluttony for resources – land and firewood and everything rapacious and steadily affluent populations need? It’s quite probable that the last wild tiger in India won’t last the decade.  Or for that matter, any tiger in the wild, anywhere.

And its not just tigers. There’s a whole list of endangered creatures in India – none of which seemed to be in the zoo. I mean – how many of us have seen Salim Ali’s Fruit Bat? Or the Red Panda? Let’s not even go near the Snow Leopard – which seems to be approaching Unicorn status. Or the great Indian Rhino.

It’s not that the Hyd zoo is noticeably short of funding. There’s construction work happening. The crowds are huge. But the money doesn’t go to the animals. Its for the junta who come to watch and hoot and throw chips and spit gum at the animals. Oh, and the best kept enclosure? The curator’s home.

I don’t want to whinge, but I can’t help doing it. I mean, isn’t conservation a fashionable cause? You have "Save the Tiger” ads starring Dhoni and Jackie Chan. You have Bollywood starlets giving each other prizes for environmental activism. Zoo Tycoon sells hundreds of thousands of copies. Why is it hard to have a good zoo? Is it because in India, we really don’t care for our fantastic fauna? It’s certainly not because we place poverty alleviation or suicidal farmers higher on our cause list.

I know the answer, of course. It’s easy to wring your hands and moan about the nation, its much harder to actually do something. But surely there must be some NGO or the other that does work with zoos? A smart ad/publicity campaign to raise funds, and a couple of committed NGOs could do wonders. I am, as doubtless many others are, willing to contribute money. But the actual work? SEP

So I’m back now. Feeling down. Feeling fucking impotent. I would have been better off playing Civilization V or DoTA all day. Not Zoo Tycoon, though.