I’ll start with a quote from my best friend Jane Goodall (whom I’ve never met, of course). His message for the Anti-Zoo Squad was that in these difficult times, it is important, more than ever, to educate children about the importance of wildlife. And nothing, not even the best TV shows and movies, can match the experience of seeing “a happy animal in a good enclosure” and “looking it in the eye.”
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This awareness is now an integral part of the work of the zoo educator; a career that is developing all over the world. Many important conservationists began their careers in a zoo: as visitors, volunteers, interns and part-time assistants.
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In fact, one of them is currently visiting the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Center for Herpetology (MCBT) – Karthikeyan Vasudevan from the Hyderabad Laboratory for the Conservation of Endangered Species. His volunteer time here some 25 years ago helped germinate the seeds of his interest in wildlife conservation.
Vasudevan said in a recent post, “The opportunity I’ve had to work at MCBT and other captive animal facilities has helped me understand the knowledge gaps and challenges in animal husbandry for conservation of endangered species”. His work has primarily focused on mobilizing scientific data that would specifically help amphibians and reptiles. ‘Through a coordinated effort involving a team of scientists and zoo professionals, a population of Indian chevrotains from a founding population of seven animals in Nehru Zoo [Hyderabad] was bred in captivity and improved to 260 animals. Later, nearly 85 of them were successfully reintroduced into the wild in five different protected areas in Telangana state.
Returning to Goodall, she had also said that there were good zoos and bad zoos, and that specific issues relating to them had yet to be fully resolved, such as the fact that certain animals, such as dolphins, should not be in a zoo at all. The answer to these concerns is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but to fix the problems.
With 80 million annual visitors to India, zoos are playing an increasingly important role as centers of learning, entertainment and inspiration. Interpretive centers are also becoming more innovative, like ours at MCBT, where VR (virtual reality) equipment is used to bring reptiles up close. It’s fun to watch the watchers, as they scream, squirm, and cling when a big or salty mugger appears to be running towards them.
Children participate in awareness activities at the Madras Crocodile Bank Trust and Center for Herpetology. | Photo credit: special arrangement
And today, post-pandemic, it’s more important than ever to observe one of the most important benefits of zoos, as green, quiet places are a proven tonic for mental health. Zoos provide an opportunity for the economically weaker sections of society to experience this, which is hard to find in noisy and crowded urban environments. Some of us have access to gardens and parks, and can visit shrines and national parks; but we are a lucky little percentage of our population. I described in Indian Spiritual Soul Chicken Soup, how nature helped me recover from the painful loss of my sister. Indeed, it is a common theme in literature and art.
Incidentally, the Central Zoo Authority (CZA), which oversees the development and evaluation of our zoos, requires a certain ratio of greenery in each zoo.
The CZA ensures a comfortable space for visitors, requiring each zoo to maintain a 30% green belt and natural vegetation; moreover, the animal accommodation surface must not exceed 30%. Trees should be tagged to improve scientific information.
Another big punch for zoos is the role they play in the conservation of endangered and threatened species. Being based at MCBT, I can mention several reptiles that would probably have become extinct had it not been for captive breeding programs… the gharial for one, the iconic long-snouted crocodilian, which was not than about 200 in the 1970s. ‘Ex situ’ breeding programs for endangered mammals include red panda, snow leopard, thamin, rhinoceros, sangai deer and many others. Some of the zoos playing an active role in the conservation of these species are Padmaja Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, Darjeeling (red panda and snow leopard), Manipur Zoological Garden (thamin) and Assam State Zoo (rhinoceros ).
Behavioral and biological studies in zoos, such as Mysore Zoo, help guide conservation policies for the animal in the wild. And, speaking of conservation, the role of zoos in mitigating human-animal conflict has become increasingly important over time. The “survivors” must be placed in spaces endowed with know-how and experience, which allow them to have a life as close as possible to nature and not simply to be kept alive. Recently, a video made the rounds of a rescued python apparently transferred to Veermata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan in Mumbai. It could very well be an abandoned pet or a trafficked animal; when the little snakes and turtles grow too big, they are (not so affectionately) left in public places, in the hope that someone will save them.
Conservation initiatives such as the breeding of endangered species and education programs have become such a part of the zoo’s activities and expectations that seeing beautiful exotic animals is only a small part of the zoo experience. in India. Nandankanan in Odisha, Mysore Zoo and Arignar Anna Chennai Zoological Park is one that does this very well. Zoos have become important centers for environmental education, and a “zoo educator” is often listed as an option in wildlife-related careers. Gone are the days when a rusty old sign was the only source of information; the need for meaningful environmental education in zoos is being addressed by both the CZA and the zoos themselves, as visitor response is heartening and interest in wildlife and its conservation grows
Future guardians of nature
Many zoos run special programs on the environment and its conservation, and climate change is increasingly part of this. They are the ideal partners for the government to convey this essential message to the different communities, from students to decision-makers. The International Zoo Educators Association, of which many Indian zoos are members, offers useful advice and information on how to enrich and expand these programs.
Today, our zoos offer free guided tours and programs. The responsibility to do so is serious in these times of coronavirus. Zoos are helping to create a battalion of our future guardians of nature, an act of self-perseveration. Because according to the thoughts of many scientists, the current pandemic could, in times to come, look like a tiddler.
We should be proud of our zoos. It is a network that discusses breeding, conservation and education plans, and shares information and ideas. These are spaces that are increasingly open to women; there are a number of female zoo directors and veterinarians. It is also an area where visitors can pay ₹40 per ticket and spend hours wandering around a space of 1,300 acres (Arignar Anna Zoological Park, Chennai) or 250 acres (Mysore Zoo).
The writer is one of the founders of the Madras Crocodile Bank, and currently its managing director.
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