Dear Ambani. India doesn’t need more zoos, it needs to save its existing wildlife

News has surfaced about India’s richest family building a private zoo. The Ambani’s, according to this report by NDTV, are slated to build a zoo in their home state of Gujarat. The report quotes Parimal Nathwani, director of corporate affairs at Reliance as saying that the zoo is scheduled to open in 2023, and even has a rescue center to support the local government.

India’s zoos are in terrible shape, if the Alipore Zoological Gardens, in my home state of West Bengal is anything to go by. The animals are kept in deplorable conditions so the fact that a large conglomerate such as Reliance is pouring cash into “conservation efforts”, and building facilities that are 280 acres in area to house various animal species, might certainly appear attractive to some.

It’s funny, that the oldest zoo in India too, began as a pet project. The Alipore Zoo, for instance, was a private menagerie established by the then Governor General of India, Richard Wellesely, in 1800 at his summer home at Barrackpore near Kolkata. Similarly, the Reliance’s pet project, being helmed by Anant Ambani, is called the “Greens Zoological Rescue and Rehabilitation Kingdom” and is to occupy around 250 acres.

The zoo is an ambitious project, and species such as the African Lion, Cheetahs, Jaguars Indian Wolf, the Asiatic Lion, Pygmy Hippo, Orangutan, Lemur, Fishing Cat, Sloth Bear, Bengal Tiger, Malayan Tapir, Gorilla, Zebra, Giraffe, African elephant and Komodo Dragons are to be housed here. State-of-the-art facilities are reportedly being prepared, and the zoo will house birds and animals from across the world in sections called Frog House, Dragon’s Land, an Insectarium, Land of Rodent, Aquatic Kingdom, Forest of India, Marshes of West Coast, Indian Desert and Exotic Islands.

Back in 2019, the Central Zoo Authority had approved the Detailed Project Report and the Master Plan Layout, at their 33rd meeting. Baby Ambani had already started taking big steps in 2019.

A very wise move, as this report from NDTV quotes Rebecca Gooch, director of research at Campden Wealth, “They have the economic horsepower to turn fantasy into reality,”. Further elaborating why billionaires invest in quirky ventures, she said “Investing in public spaces can help both a family’s and its company’s image, in turn aiding profitability and mitigating potentially negative exposure. It can also affirm a wealth holder’s standing in society and publicly cement a family’s legacy well into the future.”

The proposed zoo has already sparked some protests by animal rights activists, who objected against two black panthers being obtained from the state-run zoo in Guwahati, according to this report by Business Insider.

A private zoo isn’t a bad idea, argue many. Most seem to feel that corporate involvement will mean the animals are kept in pristine conditions, and will be pampered. Well, they aren’t going to be Reliance executives who get health insurance benefits. What these animals will get is a gilded cage. Acres and acres of walled‐off land, where they will be housed in various enclosures.

Reliance is looking at this from a profit making perspective no doubt. And why not. After investing thousands of chores into a venture it is natural to desire profits. The problem is the industry.

Around the world, people in developed countries generally tend to condemn zoos. There have been major campaigns to shut down zoos in many major parts of the world. The UK is seeing changes, as this report from The Guardian states. Earlier this year, the UK sent 2 cheetahs back to Africa, to set them free in the wild. Zoos have always played the conservation and education cards. But who wants to see a depressed tiger lying in his stinking enclosure, neglected by authorities and fate. Children can probably learn more about how animals behave in their natural habitat by watching documentaries about them. David Attenborough’s series on Netflix is a great place to start. The documentaries are engaging, and show some incredible footage of rare animals in their natural habitat.

David Attenborouh himself however, disagrees. He is of the opinion that you must actually see an elephant up close, get to smell it and experience the magnificence of such an animal up close. Maybe he does have a point, but what if that elephant isn’t too satisfied with his/her living conditions? As trivial as it may sound, elephants require a large amount of space. In the wild, African elephants have a range of 11,000 square kilometres. According to this website, the minimum area you need as a sanctuary for African elephants is 1000 square kilometres.

The list of animals in Ambani’s proposed zoo includes other species such as the Bengal Tiger, seen languishing in many zoos across India, as well as the African lion, giraffes, zebras and more, says this report.

African lions too need a huge area of space to roam with their prides. The prides across the African plains are considerably larger than their Asian cousins, and require more space in the wild and in captivity. Even in captivity, they’re quite miserable.

Today’s kids have short attention spans, and are unlikely to be interested in a listless animal in a cage. They’re more interested in the multicoloured dinosaur cartoons that you can find on YouTube, that do a decent job of imparting a little education with a lot of fun, in a way that keeps kids engaged. Nowadays, at zoos, there’s a marked change, where you can see kids being led by their parents from cage to cage. Earlier it was the excited kids who would lead the way. Now, if you snatch a phone out of a child’s hands while they’re immersed in YouTube, you’ll get kicked in the shins.

Some may argue that this will confine children to couches, making them sedentary. Well, you could always take them to a wildlife sanctuary, where there are no closed enclosures. Why does a tiger need to be dragged out of its natural habitat and put in a cage, just because Chintoo needs to write a tiger essay for Class 3?

What Chintoo’s parents could do, is book a trip to Ranthambore or The Sundarbans, once Chintoo’s exams are over, and show him where the tiger lives, explain to the kid why they may not even see one, and show him tiger documentaries on the way on your phone.

On a serious note, the sanctuaries in could always do with an infusion of private funds, and if Ambani wants to really make a difference to the environment, he could write a hefty cheque to the Sanjay Gandhi National Park, which could do with a lot more land than its present 87 square kilometres, to house its existing leopards. Maybe then, the big cats won’t have to stray into Aarey Milk Colony, or the adjoining residential localities in the area, looking for prey such as dogs and small children. Maybe Mr Ambani could start by donating radio collars to leopard conservationists who are trying to monitor the cat’s behaviour. With each collar costing Rs 5 lakh, he might be able to fund more collars than there are leopards in India.

Or, maybe they could turn their attention towards Ranthambore, where increasing tiger populations are cramping the big cats up, according to this Times of India report. Or they could maybe help with developing the Nagarhole Reserve, where it’s getting easier to spot celebrities than wildlife.

There are innumerable cases of human-wildlife conflict to illustrate that the habitat of animals is decreasing day by day, as we continue to expand our urban jungles. Most of these conflicts occur on the fringes of forest reserves because local people cannot find any other housing. Like, people in Aarey Milk Colony are quite accustomed to running into leopards. This report states how a leopard cub made itself at home in a dairy farm in Aarey.

India’s leopard and human population have always had a testy relationship because the cats are constantly being pushed to the brink, and if by chance one finds itself surrounded by people, the end isn’t pretty. This interview, with Dr Vidya Athreya a leading leopard conservationist touches upon leopard-human conflict, and what can be done to minimise it.

This problem is especially acute in India, thanks to our ever expanding population. Low-cost housing for the poor, so the animals don’t have to jostle with them for living space, could be Reliance’s agenda, instead of a zoo. Maintaining and updating the existing conservation infrastructure in our country may be a little better than building a flashy zoo in Gujarat.

But projects like these are quire typical of billionaires. Then there’s America, where you can get a permit to own a big cat. And breed them in your backyard, feeding them chicken legs that you store in your fridge.

While the Ambani zoo may not be personal, like Michael Jackson’s , it certainly is unnecessary because worldwide, the concept of zoos are becoming redundant. Even marine aquariums aren’t safe. Those of you who think SeaWorld, with their lovely orcas and dolphins are perfect places to teach your child a thing or two about marine life. A closer look at any creature at any marine facility will tell you another story altogether.  This report from Psychology Today explains how these animals go into depression in captivity.

This comprehensive article from The Print discusses how keeping large mammals in captivity damages their brains. Captivity is being constantly questioned. Some people try to defend keeping animals in captivity, pointing out that arguing that it helps conserve endangered species. Such justifications are questionable.

And lastly, Komodo Dragons don’t belong in India. If Ambani junior wants to see a large reptile, he could try closer home. According to this report, a 6 feet long marsh crocodile was found roaming the sewers of Navi Mumbai. He could send his driver across to check with the reptile whether it would like a change of accommodation, and climate. Obviously because Ambani junior won’t know the difference between a croc and a Komodo

And if the above arguments against keeping animals in cages isn’t enough, here’s a series of photos released from an account called Earth. When the coronavirus pandemic struck, and we were all locked down, this account held a mirror to society asking some much-needed questions in the process. Let the photos help you decide.

Rayomand Engineer: A freelance journalist and writer based in Kolkata, India. I love writing about the environment, wildlife, society, politics, discrimination and for the marginalised.


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