The original version of this article was printed in Star Weekend on 31 July 2015.
Photos: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo
Raja, the 21 years old Bengal Tiger is languishing in his cage with no medical care and little food. Flies are flying in circles around the wounds on his legs, but for his weakness, the old tiger appears to be quite reluctant to drive the flies away. Lolling in his cage the helpless Raja gazes indifferently at the visitors who are trying to excite him by teasing him and sometimes throwing bottles and paper at him. However, Raja, on his deathbed, has lost all interest in the ragging he has been tolerating for years.
Like Raja, many of the animals at the Bangladesh National Zoo are passing days with immense suffering. With poor medical care, scarce food and congested cages, the captive animals look so miserable and weak that seeing them is not exactly fun for all the visitors.
However, the zoo, located in a sprawling 186 acres of land in Dhaka's Mirpur section, is the 4th largest in the world in terms of area. With two picturesque lakes, a museum, two camping sites, huge gardens and orchards, this zoo has the potential to be one of the best in the world.
It was in 1950 when the first zoo in Bangladesh was opened to the public. It was situated at the present day national Eid Gan with a few deer and elephants as exhibits. In 1961 a land of 214 acres was acquired to establish a complete zoo. Later the zoo was established in 186 acres of land and was opened to the visitors in 1974. Currently, the zoo exhibits around 2633 animals of 140 species.
However, more than 50 animals in the zoo are over aged and suffering from various diseases. Zoo authority has identified several Bengal Tigers, Indian lions, Asian Black Bears, the only dingo dog and some other species as dying animals. The saltwater crocodile in the zoo is now 85 years old and whereas their normal life span is 70 years at most. Birds in the aviary are in no better condition.
Animal caretaker of the zoo Md Shajib says, "I have been working as the animal caretaker in the aviary for 12 years. Most of the birds are very old and weak. 3 of the four Hargilas are so old and weak, they are unable to eat and most of the time can be seen snoozing."
The only Asian Elephant in the zoo, Kajaltara, is too old and can't eat anymore. Her caretaker Md Shuruj Mia gives her processed and trimmed grass for easy digestion. However, she often throws up after swallowing them. Shuruj Mia says, "We, the animal caretakers, are probably the unhappiest workers in Bangladesh. Seeing the misery of these poor creatures, sometimes we can't control our tears. We feel unbearable pain in our hearts."
Dr Nazmul Hoda, the only veterinary surgeon of the zoo says, "Usually in the zoos, the animals are given euthanasia injection to ensure peaceful death when they become too old. It is a globally recognised practice."
"However, since we have no Zoo Act, we can't do it here and we have to see them slowly succumbing to death in their sheds and cages," he adds.
Visitors are also not that happy with the zoo management. Afrina Alam has come here with her friends to enjoy the Eid holidays. However, Afrina is returning with a heavy heart. She says, "I am shocked to see the disastrous condition of the animals. How can we be so cruel to them? If we can't ensure their safe keeping, we should close the zoo and release them."
Shahreen Islam, a friend of Afrina adds, "We could not visit the entire zoo because the area is huge and we found no guard or guide here. So, we were anxious about our safety."
"All the food courts in the zoo premises are closed. Elephant and horse rides are also closed. I don't think visiting our national zoo is that entertaining," says a discontented Shahreen.
A K M Nazrul Islam, the deputy curator of Bangladesh National Zoo says,"I think our zoo is in much better condition than many people perceive. We have old animals but we have young and healthy animals too. If any animal becomes ill, our officials try their best to take care of it."
According to the zoo officials, lack of national zoo legislation has been one of the main obstacles in developing the facility. Despite the recommendation from various sectors, the Bangladesh government has not passed the Zoo Act yet. Without this act, Bangladesh National Zoo cannot have membership of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the global association which provides facilities and training for the zoo officials and workers. As a result, Bangladeshi zoo workers have to work entirely from their experience and most of them have no up-to-date knowledge about zoo keeping.
In 2011, Bangladesh government made a plan to redesign and renovate the entire zoo complex. "We have almost prepared the master-plan to renovate the entire zoo complex. Animals will be kept in their natural habitats with moats surrounding them rather than bars. We will arrange boat-rides in the lakes, rope-ways and soundless vehicles for the visitors," says Islam.
However, without any renovation, the government has been collecting species from different countries resulting in premature deaths of many animals. Three of the four dingo dogs and all the Beisa Aurix which were brought here in 2011 have already died. The only Nilgai of the zoo, which was the only living specimen in Bangladesh, died last year.
Bangladesh National Zoo is a place where people from all parts of our society can learn about and enjoy the wonders of nature. It can also be a research centre for students and researchers. However, lack of proper training, mismanagement of the zoo officials and negligence from the government high ups has turned the zoo into a death camp for the wild animals. If the pending renovation project comes into light, there is a hope that it will be one of the best tourist attraction sites in Bangladesh and a conservation centre of international standards.