Wednesday, July 12, 2000

Tragedy of the Tigers

Following the tragic death of a dozen tigers in the Nandankanan Zoo in Orissa, I contributed this article to the Spotlight programme on the Conditions of Zoos in India, broadcast by the All India Radio on 11 July 2000.

The death of a dozen tigers at the Nandankanan Zoo in Bhubaneswar, has shocked the world. There are estimated to be only 7-7,500 of them left in the wild. Another few thousands may be in captivity in Zoos and circuses around the world. Sadly, even Zoos, the last refuge for some of the wild and endangered species is no longer safe for the animals. Unless serious lessons are drawn and drastic reforms in organisation of zoos, as well as changes in the Wildlife Protection Act, are initiated, the days of the tigers and many other wild animals in India will be truly numbered.

However, the response to this tragedy of the tigers so far has been extremely pedantic. A committee has been formed to investigate the deaths. And according to one newspaper report, the committee reached its verdict within a day of arriving at Bhubaneswar. It reportedly found that the diagnosis was correct, though perhaps initiated late, and has absolved everyone concerned of any responsibility.

This tragedy of the tigers calls for a serious review of the policies that guide the zoos. Rather than trying to pin responsibility on some particular official at Nandankanan Zoo, or the Central Zoo (Authority), we need to focus on the system that made the tragedy possible. At issue here is our whole approach to wildlife conservation.

Today, zoos, with the support of modern science and technology, and growing concern about the fate of dwindling number of wild animals, can and must play a much more significant role. Zoos can become centres of specialised research in wildlife, developing expertise in captive breeding of endangered species, while continuing to be among the popular tourist spots. Many of the famous zoos around the world are already engaged in these kind of knowledge based activities. They raise funds, generate revenue and attract some of the best talents to work with them.

In contrast, as was seen from the Nandankanan experience, even major zoos in India have difficulty in following the stated guidelines about maintaining the animals in healthy environment. Most zoos lack manpower, training and equipment. Pressure on finances mean that in many instances animals get less than their required diet. Medical facilities are quite inadequate. As one zoo director was quoted recently, "in a country where many hospitals do not have sophisticated equipments for the treatment of human beings, you cannot talk too much about animals."

Already some people think that too much attention and money is being spent on animals like tigers, than people. One estimate says that Central and State governments may have spent upward of Rs 25 lakhs, perhaps closer to Rs 50 lakhs, per tiger in the country in the past twenty-five years. And after all that effort we have perhaps less than five thousands of them left in India today.

In fact the biggest irony is that despite their endangered status, zoos have a standing direction not to breed too many tigers. Being in the cat family, tigers are easy to breed in captivity. But since an adult tiger needs about 10 kgs of meat a day, the animal becomes too expensive to maintain.

The problem is that tiger and many other wildlife species are considered priceless, and laws have been enacted to prohibit any economic use of these species. It is felt that economic utilisation of wildlife will push the species further down the road to extinction. Consequently, the laws have foreclosed the possibility that commercialisation may actually be conducive to conservation.

Consider the evidence though. The most exploited species in the world today are the cattle, sheep, poultry and other farm animals. Yet, these are nowhere near extinction. Millions are bred, sold and killed each year and have made significant contribution to the economy. In many countries, even some of the exotic wild species like crocodile, ostrich, deer, have become valuable economic products. And have moved away from extinction. But Indian laws have prevented people from capitalising on the economic demand for wildlife.

We are concerned about the death of these 12 tigers, but turn a deaf ear to the suffering of say, crocodiles in a Madras park. The park has been extremely successful in breeding crocodiles, and providing alternative economic opportunities to some local tribals, yet the government has for years been refusing to grant it permission to sell its animals and generate income. This despite the fact that crocodile farming has become big business in countries as diverse as Australia, South Africa and United States.

Species such as tigers also have enormous economic potential when alive in forests and wildlife parks. Tourists, who come to see these animals in their natural setting, help boost the local economy. In Zimbabwe, local villagers in many areas are given ownership rights to many wild animals, and share in the income that tourist and hunters pay to see or shoot a limited number of animals. And because of this economic interest, the local population take an active interest in maintaining the population of wildlife in their areas.

With economic interest, of course, comes the motivation to deploy and train the people and harness modern technology to ensure that the animals are kept in best of conditions.

Likewise, zoos can be the vanguard for preserving wildlife. But for that to happen, laws need to be changed to allow harnessing the economic potential of wildlife in myriad forms. Many zoos then will become economically viable, and able to function as an efficient corporate entity providing their knowledge and services to wildlife managers and farmers.

The wildlife in turn will then receive the best protection and thrive in their environment. Unless we realise the value of commerce in conservation, the fate of the wildlife, whether in the wild or in captivity in zoos will continue to hang in balance. Otherwise the tragedy of the tigers will only become a greater farce.

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