Situated in the posh Alipore area of Kolkata, covering an area of over 45 acres, the Alipore Zoological Gardens or the Alipore Zoo, has its roots in the colonial era. The Zoo was inaugurated by Edward VII, the then Prince of Wales. Even a few decades ago the Zoo was the pride of Kolkata and an immensely popular tourist spot that recorded an annual count of 20 lakh visitors which almost increased tenfold during the Christmas and the New Year seasons. Alipore Zoo specialized in ‘captive breeding’ of rare animals. In addition to a plethora of both rare and general animals, the zoo had a reptile house, the Calcutta Aquarium, and even a separate zoo for children. African Lion, the Royal Bengal Tiger, Jaguar, Great Indian one horned rhinoceros, giraffe, zebra, hippopotamus, Indian elephant, camels and the Giant Eland were some of the most popular animals of the zoo. The Zoo also housed an aviary that had some rare species of birds like the large parrots of the Macaw species, conures, touracos, Lories, lorikeets and hornbills, and a variety non flying birds like different species of pheasants, ostrich and emu. The large water bodies present here made it a haven for migratory birds in winter that proved to be a visual feast for wild life and bird photographers. It was the home of Adwaita, the 250 year old Aldabra Giant Tortoise. Legend has it that this tortoise came from Lord Clive’s private menagerie in Seychelles and reached Alipore Zoo in 1875 via the British Seamen.

But all that seem to be a thousand years ago. The current plight of the Alipore zoo, which was once the oldest and India’s largest formal zoological park, is so pathetic that even lamentable does not describe adequately the present condition of the zoo. The living conditions of the inmates of the zoo are far worse than the prisoners of notorious South American prisons. Ironically, the Zoo records a very high mortality rate of the animals when once the zoo was famous for its specialty of “captive breeding” of animals. Two red Kangaroos imported from the Czech Republic died recently and the zoo officials were prompt in blaming the deaths on respiratory problems originating from a climatic change. PETA raised much a hue and cry over the death of these animals and even demanded that the zoo to be closed down on grounds of incompetence. This was followed by the death of another red Kangaroo last year. According to a recent report the total death toll of animals in the Alipore Zoo is 67 inclusive of birds (30) and snakes (20) and two new born Marmosets, in August 2011 averaging a death rate of eight animals in eight months. 4 Chimpanzees have met their demise in the last l8 months. This period also records the death of lions and tigers as reported by the Zoo Authority. According to a Zoo official, “May be the number is high but most of that deaths were age related and quite natural”. An official report from the Director of the Zoo, M. Singhal, is still pending.

The factors responsible for the high death toll are numerous but some facts stick out like a sore thumb. Firstly, the inmates of the zoo live in an extremely unhygienic and unhealthy atmosphere. Even the food and water supplied to them is of the poorest quality. Inadequacy of proper food and drinking water and poor hygiene of the living conditions result in frequent infections among the inmates. Even the veterinary support is not up to the mark. All these factors contribute to the deplorable health infrastructure of the Zoo. Secondly, the zoo maintenance team is absolutely incompetent with little sympathy for the inmates and practically no knowledge or understanding of animal behaviour. The death of the red kangaroos is an example of the negligence of the zoo authorities because there is not a single member on the zoo maintenance team who has proper training for handling Kangaroos. The third and the most important factor is of course the space problem. Most of the concrete cages with iron bars dates back to the colonial era. The tigers and lions are cramped into cages meant for much smaller animal like leopards.

The 2009 notification of the Environment and Forest Ministry precisely states, “A large zoo must have 75 hectares for 750 animals of 75 species or 0.1 hectare for every animal on an average”. But sadly enough, Alipore Zoo can provide only 0.013 hectares per inmate which is only one tenth of the prescribed space. The space problem of the zoo is also a direct violation of the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) space norms for a standard sized zoo. Alipore Zoo falls short by 14,000 square meters of space to meet the prescribed CZA space norms. Besides, the animal enclosures should be equipped with separate resting areas, shelters, drinking water points, etc. to make the animal feel more at home but in reality the backdated enclosures especially for the tigers and lions have barely enough space for the animals to pace up and down. This congested space is giving rise to psychological problems especially in predators which the experts term as “stereotypic behaviour”. Besides, the boisterous, insensitive and mostly drunk zoo visitors with their SLR cameras rudely invade the privacy of the animals with an imbecilic attitude, which is making the animals even more withdrawn, especially the predators.

Authorities of Alipore Zoo have realized that they have hit the rock bottom this time. Hence, they have announced this new scheme of adopting zoo animals which has been met with an encouraging response. Under this scheme the adopted animal will stay at the zoo but the adopting parents will take all the responsibilities for the welfare of the adopted animal. Of course the parents will have to pay a hefty sum annually to own the animals besides other expenses. A jaguar was adopted a few days ago under this scheme. The various concerned wildlife activist bodies like the CZA are unanimous about one fact that Alipore Zoo is overcrowded, heavily lacking the naturalistic surroundings necessary for a zoo and that a total revamping of the zoo is necessary starting with the dismantling of the old animal enclosures and reconstructing them as per CZA norms. The Government is mulling over creating a satellite zoo in Bhagwanpur by relocating some of the animals from the Alipore Zoo decongesting the zoo in the process.

The Alipore Zoo, once the largest and the oldest formal State Zoological Park of India specializing in “captive breeding”, is a shame of Kolkata today. The Government and the CZA and other allied bodies should take appropriate measures to restore to this heritage Zoo some of its past glory because it will be a really tragic affair to watch this once very popular zoo closed down on grounds of incompetence.