End bureaucratisation of zoos: Valmik Thapar Interview with Author of Tiger Fire

The recent death of a young man after he jumped into the enclosure of a white tiger at the Delhi Zoo have raised questions about the safety and management of zoos across India. Right from the media's handling of the incident to the need to end bureaucratisation of zoos through public-private partnerships, Valmik Thapar, author of Tiger Fire who has spent 40 years working with India's wildlife, tells Avantika Bhuyan about some of these concerns

You mentioned in a recent editorial that zoos in India are antiquated in concept. Can you elaborate on the current state of zoos?

We have something like 200 recognised zoos, which the government coordinates through the Central Zoo Authority. But there must be a lot of unrecognised zoos as well. Ideally, a zoo should be a centre of knowledge and debate on the wild and wilderness. Sadly, Indian zoos are not driven by education. If one goes to a zoo anywhere in the world, one will find the most amazing library and the most amazing discourses by recognised figures who have travelled the world. There will be special classes for children as well. I have seen that at the Singapore Zoo, London Zoological Park and the San Diego Zoo, to name a few. These are hubs to understand animals. That is not the case in Indian zoos.

Can you talk about the best practices at the international zoos that you have mentioned?

If captive animals are present in the zoo, then there is a centre where they look at DNA and genetics. Most of these zoos have a medical centre for animals, equipped with operation theatres. There is a connect between the captive and the wild animals. For instance, if you walk through an enclosure on the tiger, there will be detailed information on the species, the current status, what the threats are, how poaching takes place, how illegal trade functions. If you walk on the perimeter of the zoo, you can choose which activity you want to engage in. For example, some people sit and paint outside the enclosures.

What is the way forward? 

If you ask me, the Indian zoos are in a mess as they are run by the Indian Forest Service, which has absolutely no business to run them. Zoos have nothing to do with the forests. Zoo management is a very specialised area of knowledge, and there are courses available across the world to educate young people in it. It is not the forte of the forest officers posted in these 200 zoos. There is a complete and thorough bureaucratisation of zoos - the state governments run them and they in turn receive funds and advice from the Central Zoo Authority.

First and foremost, banish the forest service from the zoo structure. Outsource the planning and management. There is a huge amount of talent that graduates every year in zoology and botany. Recruit them for science and research in the primates enclosure or the avian enclosure. We don't even have proper aviaries in place. Birds are put in rotten enclosures where they don't even have space to fly around. This talent needs to be engaged through long-term and short- term contracts. The Narendra Modi government appears to be a great believer in public-private partnership. I would suggest disbanding of the Central Zoo Authority. Instead, get direct sponsorship and make zoos a private franchise. Why are we obsessed with caging animals and birds? We should have huge enclosures that reflect their environment and establish learning centres around them. These then become green hubs. When that happens, the safety within the zoo will automatically get better.

With headlines screaming "killer tiger", has the media covered the Delhi incident sensitively?

Look, if someone wants to jump into an enclosure, no one can stop him or her. It's like someone jumping in front of a bus. How do you save the life of a person who is suicidal? But no one from the media has asked deeper questions about the need to eliminate laws and acts that were made in the days of the Raj. The media has not even understood the issue of zoos as learning centres or the need to outsource their management. The Indian Forest Act and the essence of other laws have colonial origins. We need to rewrite many of them and make them simpler. The laws related to zoos and captive animals need to be completely amended in order to privatise these spaces. Even in small towns, say Thrisoor, outsource the zoo management. There is a need to engage outside talent not only in zoos, but also in tiger reserves and national parks across the country. The government has dozens of secretaries nt who are not IAS officers, individuals from outside the Indian Foreign Service have been appointed ambassadors, and people like Sam Pitroda and Nandan Nilekani, who are not MPs, have been roped in for government projects. So why not do the same for zoos and protected areas?

In a public-private partnership, how should the process work?

The people that you outsource to should be freely allowed to manage and handle all legal schedules of animals. Existing clauses state that only the chief wildlife warden can give out certain permissions. So, we need to stop mixing up zoos with the Wildlife Act. There is a need for a white paper on how to outsource zoos and pave the road for new laws on the same. The Modi government believes in rapid action and public-private partnerships. Let's start with the 200 zoos of India and overhaul them in every way