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    Volume 9 Issue 30| July 23, 2010|

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Cover Story

Silent Calls for Help

Anika Hossain and Lusana Anika Masrur
Photos: Zahedul I Khan

Over the past 46 years, the Dhaka Mirpur Zoo has seen many changes, not all of them positive. As one approaches the main entrance, the vibrantly dressed crowd, the smell of fried food, the vendors lined up with their gaudy jewellery, toys and masks in kaleidoscopic colours all seem the same as when the zoo was first inaugurated. But inside the walls, it's a different story. The grounds of the zoo are still luxuriantly green, but the vegetation seems to have grown with a mind of its own, assuming a wild look, no longer the well-maintained, manicured place it once was. The uneven, dusty pathways, with overgrown grass and loose bricks lead to the animal enclosures, which no longer have the open airy feel they once used to have.

The Dhaka Zoo has been around for over four decades and it is still a popular recreational facility. Founded in 1964, it started off as a menagerie at the High Court premises in Dhaka, and was moved to its present location in 1974, when on June 23 of the same year, it opened to the public. The Mirpur Zoo is officially known as the National Zoological Garden under the Ministry of Fisheries and Livestock. It occupies 75 hectares of lush green land and has two lakes about 13 hectares each. The lakes attract thousands of waterfowl every year during winter. The zoo was originally designed to house local and foreign animals, in an environment that would imitate their natural habitat as closely as possible. Among the animal population were numerous species of mammals, birds, reptiles and aquarium fish, some rare and interesting ones being the African grey parrot, water buck, impala, emu, baboon, chimpanzee, gayal, black bear, tapir, mandrill, and the estuarine crocodile, all at home in spacious enclosures surrounded by abundant greenery.

More than a decade ago, one would enter the zoo to find a huge expanse of grassland where free-ranging local spotted-deer would be roaming carelessly, absolutely oblivious to its captivity. Today, no such land exists; the territory seems to have been substantially reduced and sold off while much of the remaining land has been taken over by slum dwellers. This may not seem like an issue of grave concern, but anybody specialising in the field of environmental studies or zoology knows what a grave threat this poses to the various species that reside within the boundary of our once beloved chiriyakhana.

The giraffe enclosure.

Any species of animal, when taken out of its natural habitat, becomes an alien species to its hosts and interferes with their well-being and vice versa. As such, it is very crucial for them to be separated from each other, to maintain conducive and natural lifestyles for them. The larger animals, such as the Royal Bengal tigers, the Indian lions, the chimpanzee, leopards, etc., are now kept in cages with extra metal netting to ensure the safety of the animals as well as the visitors. Although the thick netting adds to the safety, it also gives the place a prison-like aura, the animals treated like dangerous prisoners. The enclosures themselves have concrete cement floors, and are devoid of all plant life that once adorned them. While most of the cages have tubs of water for drinking and washing, the water has a dirty, stagnant look to it, which seems unhygienic and unhealthy for the animals.

The animals themselves appear to be sapped of all energy in mid summer heat and lie in their small cages with a vacant, listless and exhausted look in their eyes. The monkeys seem to be the only active creatures in the entire zoo, jumping into their water pool and interacting with visitors. Most of the animals look ill-fed and sickly. While there seem to be very few guards on duty, visitors openly break the zoo rules, which clearly forbid them from feeding, throwing things at, or disturbing the animals in any way. This adds to the draining effect of the weather to which these animals are being subjected. Animals such as horses, deer, donkeys, zebras, elephants and giraffes do not have enough space for their much-needed daily exercise, which lowers their life expectancy considerably.

While the zoo has a successful breeding programme and has bred Royal Bengal Tigers, lions, leopards, primates, deer and many different bird species, and has animal exchange programmes with many zoos around the world, the death toll over the past year has been alarmingly high. In 2009 alone about 20 rare animals lost their lives and among them were nine new animals procured from South Africa just a year before. Among the deceased were a Nilgai and a Sambar deer, a Malayan Tapir, a baboon, a wildebeest, a Royal Bengal Tiger, two fresh water crocodiles, one zebra and a stork (Madantak). The deaths were reported to be caused by tuberculosis, gangrene, the animals fighting with each other and various old age diseases.

The active monkeys.

According to the Deputy Curator Dr ABM Shahid Ullah, the zoo is grossly understaffed and the number of staff is inadequate to look after the animals and maintain the grounds properly. Only nine trained professionals working at the zoo have university degrees and Masters degrees. Currently, there is one veterinarian surgeon for the 2,081 animals (151 species) kept in captivity. According to Dr Shahid Ullah, “the temperatures are too high and because of high levels of humidity and low bio-security, diseases spread among the animals sometimes causing death.” The Deputy Curator also complains about the attitude of visitors who often behave in ways that are considered harassment towards the animals. The zoo lacks the manpower to keep things under control. Heavily neglected by successive governments, it is currently understaffed with 42 posts vacant. The administration also lacks a proper, detailed and systematic database of their resident species and animals. He claims that the current employees receive daily and extensive training in how to care for the animals with minimum risk of attack or injury to themselves. However, according to a long-term employee Mohammad Sadeque Ali, who has been working at the zoo for the past 24 years, he has come close to being attacked by large animals quite a few times during his career and he considers his job a high risk one. The Deputy Curator claims that the current Prime Minister is taking steps to recruit more staff in the near future.

The zoo is still a popular place with thousands visiting on weekends

“We have lost three animals recently, a zebra, a giraffe and an onyx,” says Dr Shahid Ullah. “The African giraffe's death is still under investigation, but we are guessing it was due to lack of exercise. Giraffes need to run 3 to 4 kilometres everyday but their enclosure is not large enough to allow them to do so. We are trying to give the remaining giraffes as much exercise as possible and various drugs to improve their metabolism and physiological condition.”

He suggests that the slum just outside the walls of the giraffes' enclosure is the cause for most of the airborne and waterborne diseases and contamination. Ideally, the area up to one kilometre radius surrounding the zoo should not be populated. The Deputy Curator also states that the drastic decrease in the number of animals in the zoo is due to the fact that very few animals have been brought in from abroad recently.

Dr Shahid Ullah also mentions that every year, the Finance Ministry allocates Taka five crores for food and water, and five more for maintenance and other miscellaneous costs. From ticket sales, it earns about another six crores annually. Compared to international standards, the funds are rather insufficient and questions arise about how much of it is efficiently spent on the animals. Entry tickets are priced at Taka 10, which is extremely low even considering the fact that 60 percent of zoo visitors come from relatively poor demographics. Price hikes have been proposed by the administration on a number of occasions but were turned down by the government repeatedly.

An increase in ticket prices would not only limit the number of people coming into the zoo, reducing litter and contamination, but it would also restrict the crowd to people from slightly better off backgrounds. The better literacy standards and exposure associated with them would mean that visitors would be more law abiding and understanding towards the animals. However, our chiriyakhana is one of the very few remaining pieces of recreation that are still accessible to the ultra poor of our country, so bringing in price ranges to the tickets might be more appropriate. Children under the age of 12 could be admitted for free, whereas families with children, students and seniors could receive discounts like most places of recreation in any other part of the world, suggest experts.

Rezaul Islam and his wife Shilpi are visiting the zoo after a long time, and they confess they are thoroughly disappointed. According to them, the zoo they remembered from before had much more species of animals, was greener and more organised. "It is also in dire need of beautification and maintenance," Rezaul adds.

Supporting his argument, another visitor, Noorin Haque comments, "I am coming to the zoo today after 12 years and honestly the condition is better than what I expected. What is utterly disheartening though, is people's attitude towards the animals."

Within 10 minutes of being present at the zoo, one could witness exactly what Noorin was complaining about. Despite having toilet facilities, people can be found urinating in every other nook and cranny, sometimes not even bothering to hide behind bushes.

"The average number of visitors on a typical Friday ranges from 40,000 to 50,000. The amount of litter thrown by even half this number leaves the area covered with garbage, very hard to clean by our already overloaded and under-equipped workers," complains Dr Shahid Ullah.

People lining up at the entrance of the zoo.

Holding her son, Shathee, a regular visitor since she herself was a child, also complains about the steady decline in the zoo's condition. "The cages look like they have never been cleaned, and the smell is nauseating," she mentions. All the stables, cages and coops establish her point. What stands out most is probably the aviary for water birds, almost completely dried out with nothing but algae and fungus on the floors proving that once upon a time there must have been water for the birds to swim in. One may wonder, looking at her son, if 20 years down the line, there would be a zoo left for him to visit with his children.

On the plus side, Dr Shahid Ullah mentions how the Dhaka Mirpur Zoo may be considered comparable with other neighbouring countries in the subcontinent. Furthermore, the living conditions of the animals are being paid closer attention to over the last few months. Students from nearby institutions also throng the place for research and study, and the zoo's breeding programme is quite renowned within the region. The aging trees and their lush greenery, almost impossible to find elsewhere in the city, also leave a sense of peace and tranquility. However, the few praises that can be lavished on the zoo premises are tremendously overshadowed by all its drawbacks.

Dead turtle preserved at the museum.

People seem to forget the living, breathing, feeling beings that exist underneath the bodies that we perceive as nothing but commodities caged to please us. All holy scriptures hold that mankind is the supreme creation, and they also enjoin kindness towards animals, especially the ones in captivity. Our designated superiority, should in fact, mean that we have the responsibility to protect our forests and waters and the 'inferior and passive' wildlife that depend on it. And if we cannot do that, at least we should be responsible for the ones that are in our care. Through increased transparency, policy reformation, education and awareness, it is high time that the government, zoo officials, environmentalists and the general public come together to heed the calls of the creatures that call Dhaka Zoo their home.

Deputy Curator Dr. Shahid Ullah
Malnourished hippopotamus.
Animal Clinic.
Map of the zoo.
Flamingoes and Peacock
Elephant rides

Clockwise from top left, Porcupines, Zebra, Deer, Leopard


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