The Zai Whitaker column | In defence of zoos, and why the post-pandemic world needs them more than ever
The role of zoos as conservation centres has continued to develop over the years and today, many species have been brought back from the brink thanks to zoo initiatives.
This is really the pits; a Trustee of a zoo (the Madras Crocodile Bank) spouting off about the benefits of zoos! Talk about vested interests! But I have a good excuse: I’ve been a zoo junkie from way, way back.
When I was in my teens, one of Gerald Durrell’s mammal keepers — Quentin Bloxam — stayed with us for a time in (then) Bombay. His mission was to collect a pair of lions from Junagadh, Gujarat, and take them back to Jersey Zoo. The Gir lion population had dwindled to less than 300, and the Durrell team was creating conservation repositories of endangered species from around the world.
I was an avid Durrell reader, and relentlessly persecuted Quentin with questions about “GD” — and even managed to appropriate a shirt of his, which he’d lent Quentin for the trip since it was light cotton and “good for the tropics”. It was at least 10 times my size, but I insisted on wearing it, much to my mother’s dismay. Incidentally, while on the trivia trail, the lion and lioness were named after my father and me. Over the next few months, we got several updates from Quentin about how Zafar was a tractable and responsible lion, but [Zai] was a handful.
After the Junagadh pick-up and before they were flown to the UK, the lions were housed in the Victoria Garden Zoo (now Veer Mata Jijabai Bhosale Udyan and Zoo) while Quentin stayed with us to wait out their quarantine period. As the most dispensable member of the family, I was nominated to help him navigate the bus and train system and get him to Byculla and back. This was an added opportunity for questions and it was fascinating to hear about Jersey Zoo’s conservation projects from around the world. In later years, I was to read about the many successes of the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, including the restoration of the island of Floreana in the Galapagos National Park, and clearing it of introduced predators which threaten its wildlife and vegetation.
Since those times, the role of zoos as conservation centres has continued to develop and today, many species have been brought back from the brink thanks to zoo initiatives. The Johannesburg Zoo is engaged in a breeding and rewilding program for the Cape vulture, an endemic and endangered species. Closer to home, Indian zoos continue to expand their conservation inputs for endangered species such as the snow leopard, thamin and the lutung (langur/leaf monkey), Phayre’s leaf macaque. They are also halfway homes for rescued animals. With increasing cases of human-wildlife conflict, this is an important contribution.
Zoos are part of international conservation links as well, such as with the Siamese crocodile, which has bred successfully at the Croc Bank (to the extent of laying two clutches of eggs a year since 2008!). There is a plan to repatriate Siamese crocs into the wild but hybridisation with other species has been a conservation concern. Instead, offspring from the Croc Bank may be used for this rewilding because DNA analysis has confirmed the strong genetic status of our group. Funded by Fauna and Flora International, keepers from conservation breeding farms in Cambodia visited the Croc Bank for training in capture, safe transport, and husbandry specifics for the species. Subsequently, in 2014, the Croc Bank curators travelled to Cambodia to advise on enclosure design, feed regimes, incubation protocols, and other site-specific details. This is an example of the role zoos play in cross-country conservation initiatives. There are many more; this is a developing aspect of zoos all over the world and includes research at many levels as well. The Central Zoo Authority (CZA), the umbrella body in India for zoo management, supports and initiates these programs. The recent addition of a molecular biologist and architect on the board of the CZA is great news and points to this broader vision for zoos in India.
Zoos have become important centres for environmental education, and “Zoo Educator” is often listed as an option in wildlife careers. The CZA encourages zoos to use events such as Wildlife Week to spread awareness about the environment and conservation. On regular days, apart from talks and tours, special programmes are conducted for school and college students — the most important target community — as my generation continues to hope that our “youth” will be wiser guardians of nature than we are, and heal the Earth-wounds caused by deforestation and climate change. Apart from these, we now have the even more tangible message of the coronavirus pandemic and it is an accepted fact that — in Damien Carrington’s words — “ongoing destruction of nature will result in streams of animal diseases jumping to humans”. And the present pandemic may, in the future, look like one of the tiddlers.
I now come to a third and extremely important benefit of zoos: which is that they support our mental health, with their green, open spaces to wander in. On a “round” a year or so ago, I noticed a family that I’d seen entering the zoo a couple of hours earlier. I greeted them, and said “You seem to be great croc fans”, to which the reply was yes, we love all animals, but we actually come here for the greenery. Zoos, like parks, are one of the last few refuges of green spaces where people can unwind and relax; again, something that will become even more important as we struggle with the after-effects of the pandemic. In India it is mandatory for zoo plans to include a decent percentage of green spaces within the campus.
The poets have talked of this connection between nature and human wellbeing through the ages. Walt Whitman attributed his recovery from a stroke, to the access he had to the open air, trees and stars. In his darkest moments, Keats found solace in nature. Marching along boldly with the Greats, I described, in Chicken Soup for the Indian Spiritual Soul, how nature helped me recover from my sister’s death.
In a recent series of talks, Dr Jane Goodall addressed the zoo-opposition lobby and spoke about the value of zoos. Yes, she concluded, there are good zoos and bad zoos, as with many institutions, and specific problems have to be looked at by the authorities. There are also some animals such as dolphins that shouldn’t be in a zoo, and others such as elephants that should only be displayed if vast spaces are available for them. Her overall message is, now more than ever, we must sensitise children to wildlife and its importance. And no TV show or film, can match the experience of being in the presence of “a happy animal in a good enclosure” and to be able to “look them in the eye”. What better note to end on, than the words of one of the most influential naturalists of our time?
Author and conservationist Zai Whitaker is managing trustee — Madras Crocodile Bank Trust/Centre for Herpetology
— Featured image via AP Photos
More columns by Zai Whitaker on Firstpost —
Notes on camping with crocodiles, and watching baby muggers hatch
On World Environment Day, looking back at lessons by the greatest teacher of all — time
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