by Dhaneshi Yatawara
The National Zoological Garden in Dehiwala has been a favourite spot for both local and foreign visitors. It carries memories of everyone’s childhood and each one of us will be sure to have a story to tell of some incident during a visit.
It is such an attractive place that a school trip to Colombo is not complete without the visit to the zoo and later becomes a famous topic for the school essay.
Since its start in the late 1920s as a menagerie, the National Zoological Gardens has many stories to tell. These are not confined to descriptions of animal species. The deaths of the three white tiger cubs and the rhino calf were the most recent that became prominent news. Thus, it was time to ask from the zoo officials as to what on earth happened.
The media outcry pointed various officials as responsible. Yet the higher management of the zoo including its Director and deputy directors should have the answers to all these questions about the most sought out place of entertainment of the country.
Numbers exaggerated According to Anura de Silva, Director of the National Zoological Gardens number of animal deaths at the zoo is not magnificent as it has been projected in news. “As there was so much of public attention I checked the relevant records of that time period and found that there were only around 22 deaths.
All these dead animals were not only cubs and were not only from the cat family,” de Silva said. Though there were deaths of cubs, many other animals have died due to old age and some others due to terminal illnesses. As he explained the attention in this issue was more on charismatic megafauna – i.e. large animals with widespread popular appeal. “Therefore I checked the details on records of animals considered as charismatic megafauna and revealed the numbers were far less than as projected in certain media.
“How have they got such high figures is a question for me as well. But I definitely can say that there weren’t that much of deaths among the animals considered as charismatic animals,” he explained. “The death of the Rhinoceros calf was investigated by an independent party appointed by the Secretary to the Ministry of Economic Development.
Officials of the District Veterinary Investigation Centre under the Department of Animal Production and Health carried the investigation,” he explained. Accordingly the investigation is reported to be complete.
“We need to set up and upgrade procedures on what steps to take with regard to monitoring animals, identifying their health issues and pregnancies. I admit that we need to establish these procedures and we are giving our fullest attention to complete this soon with the support of the experts of the field,” Anura de Silva added.
According to Deputy Director Dhammika Malsinghe the zoo needs more land to expand. “This is the one and only zoo in the country and spreads only in 22 acres. We have around 300 species of animals. And altogether 2000 – 3500 animals, large animals as well as minute fish, butterflies and snakes – this may vary. Because of that animals are congested in cages,” Malsinghe explained.
The number of animals is beyond the average carrying capacity of the premises. “Today we are unable to expand it because this is an urban area and the land value is very high making it difficult for us to purchase new lands in the vicinity to expand. We faced a very difficult situation in finding space even for the car park,” she added. Thus the zoo administration proposed to have another zoo and a safari park.
And on the other hand we need space to upgrade the zoo and for that we need to remove some animals. We have animal exchange programs with other zoos of the world yet in addition we need to move out some animals in order to get more space to upgrade the animal enclosures, said Malsinghe. “Certain zoological gardens of some other countries even euthanise animals but according to our culture we simply cannot do that,” she added. As she explained the zoo takes care of the animal even in its old age. “We do euthanisation only if the animal is suffering, most often due to a terminal illness and it is very rare,” she added.
How did the zoo get so congested with animals?
As of today the number of animals are beyond the carrying capacity of the zoo. “This is seen more in big animals,” said Malsinghe. Lions are exhibited in three places and in addition some are in the Hospital area. Bengal Tigers are in two locations and jaguars are also in two cages. According to her years ago there was a procedure in the country to give away animals on loan to animal lovers for them to rear them at their own expense. “But later Department of Wildlife Conservation took a decision to take back all those animals that were given away.
Following this the rules and regulations on animal welfare became strict,” she explained. With this shift of law the National Zoological Gardens had to take in the animals that were given away to animal lovers, according to Malsinghe. “Thus number of lions increased. Today many of the lions are very old but according to our culture of Sri Lanka we take care of the animal until its death due to natural causes.
When it comes to animals like deer and sambur the practice is to release them in to the wild on the approval of the Department of Wildlife Conservation. “Releasing animals is easier said than done,” she said. Without training these animals to survive in the wild, by releasing the animals we are putting their lives in danger, Malsinghe explained. “In such a case we are reluctant to release these animals.
So the only method is to control their birth rate and contraceptive methods are used at present, she explained. The Zoological Garden today raises the need of a gene testing method specially to be used when getting animals through exchange programs. A plan needs to be established, either as a fully Government owned institute or as a special program with the existing institutes in the country which are in the private sector. Considering the national importance it is quite a key factor for ex situ conservation of animals.
As Malsinghe explained the Bengal Tigers at the zoo are having birth defects. “Before accepting them from China we checked the records and papers with the animal description but we didn’t have a method to check their blood for genetic defects,” she said. “Normally after the second generation of a family line of animals, mating of a male and a female who are closely related occurs in the natural world – know as inbreeding. Thus the signs can only be seen in the third generation and afterwards if they ever appear physically. This can be accurately identified only through a gene test,” Malsinghe explained.
International Species information System (ISIS) specimen and track records stated that these animals were unrelated but unfortunately the cubs born to these were with birth defects and they died. “Through these papers it is very difficult to find whether inbreeding had happened in the family line of these animals. When the animals are captive bred, the history of the first batch of animals brought from the wild is not clear. Thus it will not come in to papers,” she explained.
International Species information. Whenever System – it is package in which this zoo is a member, according to Malsinghe. er we exchange we have to check these taxa reports and ISIS specimen reports and it says these animals are unrelated.
“Thus we decided not to keep them together as their off springs may die due to these hard to identify birth defects. So we are keeping them in separate places,” she explained. We need to mix these animals or their genetic material with a totally different Bengal tigers, she added.
It is not easy to get these animals as they are rare and can be very expensive if we are to buy them. A developing country like ours cannot afford such an expense. When exchanging the other party should be willing to accept the animals we give them making it a two way process.
What is the future plan?
Under the instructions of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa the zoo authorities are developing the infrastructure of the zoo, specially expanding the space for the animals.
“Under a new Cabinet paper the National Zoological Gardens gets expanded with several sub institutions,” Malsinghe explained.
In order to provide more space a new Safari park is coming up in Hambanthota and another next to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage. “We plan to complete the African lion zone and African safari area by next year around August and by then we will be able to accommodate those animals there and more space will be available in the zoo as well.
While those constructions are under way we drew a master plan for the Dehiwala zoo with significant changes giving more space to animals,” she explained.
Thus under the master plan some of the animal enclosures are getting an uplift. The two Rhinos at the zoo, Kosala and Anula, are getting their home expanded. Their enclosure spreads to the other side of the visitor passage with a tunnel going under the passage and it is almost getting complete. The zoo authorities have already demarcated an area to build an open enclosure for elephants and plans are all set for new enclosures for meerkats and mongoose.
The zoo will be receiving Komodo dragons within this year from Czech Republic in an exchange with pair of elephants.
“Many of the employees in the zoo have been working in this institute over a long period of time. To them this is more precious than their families and we surely understand that this is an important public place. And we will take all the best possible steps to protect this and develop this for the future of the animals as well as our children,” Malsinghe said. Courtesy: Sunday Observer