New Delhi: The Delhi zoo is officially called the National Zoological Park (NZP). Over 37 years after it was rechristened to reflect its status as the “model zoo” for the country, it is now in the news for a total administrative breakdown, suspicious and unrecorded deaths of animals, alleged foul play in its maintenance as well as illegal trafficking of animals.
Situated right below the ramparts of the Old Fort in the heart of the national capital, the zoo has an impressive annual flow of visitors — with both children and adults thronging in large numbers to catch more than just fleeting glimpses of wild animals.
In 2017-18, over 2.7 million people — or roughly 7,422 people a day — visited the zoo, generating a revenue of Rs 12.19 crore for NZP, the only zoo in the country to be administered directly by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change.
Yet, behind the swarming crowds and the rapacious advertising on travel websites, is a tale of utter apathy and abuse by authorities.
In an ongoing case regarding the glaring and innumerable irregularities on part of the zoo authorities, the Delhi High Court made a startling observation earlier this month.
“There is absolute lawlessness prevailing in the national zoo of the country… The records are being manipulated and tampered with and the statutory body is not being allowed to perform its assigned duties. The death of animals is being suppressed. It points to a sordid state of affairs in the National Zoological Park,” said the court.
The remarks came after the NZP made an admission in court that captured the enormity of the problem.
When asked by the court to conduct an animal census in the 176-acre enclosure, the zoo authorities said they had no idea of the number of animals under their watch — even though the zoo’s official website carries a detailed inventory of the number of animals in the zoo, listing the number of captive animals at 1,200.
What’s worse is that the Delhi High Court was compelled to order that the census be done under police protection since the zoo’s own staff was reportedly blocking the census team from carrying out the census.
Case against NZP
“What does this show? Either they are lying to the court or this inventory is humbug,” said animal rights activist Gauri Maulekhi, who is a petitioner in the case.
“The Delhi Zoo is supposed to be the model zoo in the country, and its authorities don’t know how many animals are in it?” she asked.
“What does it say about the other zoos of the country, which may not be under the scanner like this one is?” asked Maulekhi. “If you don’t know how many animals you have in the zoo, how do you even get food for them…Unless you just leave them starving.”
Several letters and reports filed by the Central Zoo Authority of India (CZA), a regulatory body for zoos across the country, suggest that there have been a number of cases of mysterious deaths, no post-mortems, illegal capturing and housing of animals, manipulation of records, use of expired medicines on animals, suppression of animal deaths and criminal conspiracy in the zoo over a prolonged period of time.
Between 2016 and 2017, the Delhi zoo reportedly lost over 320 animals.
Moreover, according to official letters by the Delhi zoo director Renu Singh, the NZP’s only veterinarian is responsible for tampering evidence and fudging records of animal deaths in the zoo — a claim being heard in the Delhi HC.
ThePrint reached the NZP for comment but there was no response till the time of publishing. This report will be updated when NZP responds.
‘Politics and in-fighting’
According to an official in the Environment Ministry, things have come to such a pass due to “a lot of politics and infighting” within the zoo.
“Even the CZA and NZP are at loggerheads due to some personal rivalries… So they keep writing against each other, and nothing is really done,” said the official on condition of anonymity.
Animal deaths have been a problem in the zoo for many years, however, they have started coming out in this ugly fashion due to the politics of the zoo, the official said.
“The Delhi zoo was supposed to be the model zoo for the country, but it has become a prime example of extremely poor management,” the official added.
However, according to D.N. Singh, former member secretary of the CZA, the gravity of the problems facing the zoo cannot be brushed aside by calling it “politics”.
“Animals are being given expired medication, they are being neglected and dying… Treatment is not provided to them in time,” he said. “How can you call this ‘politics’?”
Last week, Singh wrote to the ministry alleging that the vet declared a critically ailing, but alive, nilgai dead, and left the zoo premises. Hours later, the nilgai actually died. The ministry is now conducting an inquiry into the death.
Singh, who retired from the post last year, said that the environment ministry is “compromised”, and thus, takes no action.
“Most officers in the ministry have the zoo staff working in their homes illegally… So why will they say anything about the wrongdoings of the zoo?” he said.
According to Singh, the medicines procured for the wild animals are bought at exorbitantly high prices, indicating entrenched corruption in the zoo. In 2017, the Drugs Controller General of India too observed malpractices in the procurement and usage of the medicines in the Delhi zoo.
Yet, according to insiders, medicines continue to be purchased at inflated prices to benefit some officials of the zoo.
“There is so much corruption, and the animals are the silent sufferers,” said Singh.
Earlier this month, a high-powered committee appointed by the ministry to look into the issue prepared a series of recommendations to be submitted to the ministry.
The recommendations which are not in the public domain yet, include bringing NZP under the ambit of CZA, punitive actions — including suspension — of errant officials, and creating standard operating procedures for the zoo to minimise arbitrary actions by zoo authorities, revealed the official.
“Over the next few months, we will fill in all these gaps to ensure that the zoo achieves the status it was supposed to have,” the environment ministry official said.
For animal activists like Maulekhi, action needs to be taken without any delay. “When people and authorities talk about the zoo, they need to realise that there are lives at stake.”
“It is vulgar enough to put animals on display for human entertainment… But in Delhi, even the bare minimum dignity is being denied to them,” she said.