Sunday, 22 January 2012

Empty cages, big plans

Now in its 151st year, the zoo at Jijamata Udyan in Byculla needs revitalisation

As you enter Jijamata Udyan, popularly known as Byculla Zoo, the signs of ageing are clearly visible. Empty cages welcome you and it is clear that Mumbai’s lone zoo, now set for its 150th anniversary celebrations, awaits a much-needed makeover from the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC).

Empty enclosures, dry grass and boards of non-existent animals await visitors during their trip to the zoological garden. With an entry ticket of Rs 5, it is an abode for young couples. The cat family is absent, with the exception of one lioness, whom the crowd screams at and teases. Snakes have been shifted, temporarily, to an animal shelter nearby, as the reptile section is being renovated. There is one female Himalayan black bear.  

The animals that were earlier in the zoo but have either died or have been shifted — like tigers, snakes and lions — will be the first to be added in the next couple of years. Officials admit that the zoo has suffered due to the modernisation plan being on the anvil, but not put into effect, for 10 years. “We cannot bring in any new animals as the plans are being worked out for renovation of the zoo. Several animals have passed away and some are in their last stages,” says an official associated with the zoo development. The condition of the zoo has suffered because of the delay in implementation, as there have been several revisions in the layout, adds the official.

According to zoo officials, however, all is not lost. They remain optimistic about its future. "This will be one of the most beautiful zoological gardens in India in some years. We plan to start work to modernise the area from 2013. Animals like the zebra, leopard, civet cat, jaguar and Indian bison will hopefully be brought in,” adds a zoo official. The ambitious authorities also plan to add penguins to their list of species on display.

Animal rights activists are, however, not happy with how things are at the zoo. Members of the NGO People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has visited the zoo on many occasions. In November 2003, PETA India staffers and the then Deputy Mayor of Mumbai, Rajesh Sharma, took a round of the zoo along with officials. Sharma had requested the officials to ensure that immediate steps were taken to improve the living conditions of the animals, according to PETA.
In August 2004, after trying to work with the zoo authorities for almost a year, PETA India prepared a comprehensive report on the zoo and submitted it to the authorities.

“One of the immediate outcomes of this report was that the Mumbai Zoo did not get the necessary recognition from the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) under the Zoo Rules of 1992 at that time,” says Poorva Joshipura, PETA India’s Chief Functionary. This, according to PETA, clearly reflected the fact that the zoo’s conditions were not up to the mark.

PETA officials further add that the CZA has banned elephants from being kept in zoos because zoos are wholly inadequate environments for elephants. PETA appealed to the Byculla zoo to release its own elephants to a sanctuary where they can live as elephants were meant to live. “The zoo has yet to move its elephants, despite the CZA order. A person was killed when he entered the elephant enclosure,” says Manilal Valliyate, PETA’s Director of Veterinary Affairs. Valliyate adds that keeping a few penguins at the Byculla zoo in the hope that they will draw a crowd will do nothing to help protect the species.

As for the 150th-year celebration, the anniversary actually fell in 2011. Insiders say that that the celebrations were delayed by inadequate funds, but some officials claim that celebrations did, in fact, begin last year. “As part of the celebrations, special nature trails had already begun in 2011,” says a senior zoo official. The official programme list, however is awaited.

Zoo officials add that nature trails and activities designed to create awareness about environmental issues will be part of the anniversary celebrations, expected to go on till the end of 2012. BMC will organise these events, which will officially commence in February.

Despite all these issues, there has been no drastic decline in the number of visitors to the zoo. The atmosphere and greenery attract an estimated 5,000 visitors every day. The zoo received 1.6 million visitors in 2011-12. “The zoo may not have too many animals, but I still frequent the place because of the peaceful surroundings and colourful flora. It is one of the best places to relax in Mumbai, since it is affordable,” says Harish Gupta, an octogenarian who visits the place at least thrice a week.

As Byculla Zoo prepares itself for a makeover, officials are hoping that it does not fall prey to further bureaucratic delays. Jijamata Udyan is a landmark of Mumbai and particularly of Byculla, and the zoo deserves much better.

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