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How zoo animals in India are coping with the covid19 lockdown

The lack of visitors has come as a welcome break for solitary animals like tigers and leopards, but the sociable primates are said to be missing the human company

Langurs are social animals.
Langurs are social animals.

Jahangir Ali, an animal handler at the Assam State Zoo, has been looking after a family of golden langurs for the past four years. At 6 am every day, he carries a basket with fruits and vegetables to their enclosure, feeds them, cleans their wastes and checks up on their young. “They’re just like humans," he says, referring to their social habits. “Only their face is a little different."

So when the Assam State Zoo, spread over 175-hectares inside a reserve park in Guwahati, shut down on 15 March to prevent the spread of covid19, Ali was concerned about its impact on the langurs. Primates are sociable animals. They’d need help in adapting to the sudden lull in visitors.

“I’ve started spending more time with them since," says Ali. His visits now last longer – he also keeps up a steady chatter while feeding them. The time they spend together seems to have brought the langurs closer to their handler. A couple of weeks ago, the Facebook page of Assam State Zoo uploaded a video showing a mama-langur patiently sifting through Jahangir’s scalp, screening it for lice.

As the covid19 lockdown enters its eighth week, animals in zoos across the world are getting used to the new normal. The calm and quiet has been a welcome break for solitary animals like tigers, leopards and panthers. In a Hong Kong zoo, such newfound privacy even resulted in its two pandas mating after a gap of 10 years. In Tokyo’s Sumida Zoo, authorities had to organize a three-day “face-showing festival" where people video-called garden-eels in the zoo to get them used to humans again. The eels had started burrowing into sand every time caretakers went past their glass enclosures.

There are 145 zoos across India, most of them owned by the state and central government or local civic bodies. By 15-20 March, all of them shut in a countrywide effort to reduce crowding in public places. Their guards went up further after a tiger in a New York zoo tested positive for covid19 in first week of April, becoming the first documented case of man-big cat transmission. The next day, the Central Zoo Authority (CZA) of India issued a circular asking the zoos to remain on “highest alertness". It also emphasized the need for restricted movement, constant surveillance and high degree of hygiene within zoo premises.

An immediate difference has been in the upkeep and maintenance of the zoos. “We have started cleaning the insides of the cages every alternate day and disinfecting outside every day," says Bharat Singh, director in-charge of Ahmedabad Zoo. “We make sure that the animal handlers clean their hands before preparing feeds and give it with masks and gloves on." Under Essential Services Act, zoos are supposed to receive an interrupted supply of food. But to avoid shortfall, some like Mumbai’s Veer Mata Jijabai Bhosale Zoo have stocked up on two-weeks’ supply in cold storage.

Amit Kumar, director of Sanjay Gandhi Biological Park in Patna which houses over 108 species, says the transition to self-isolation has been smooth so far. “We already had a practice of it because of the outbreak of bird flu in December," he says. “At the time, we were closed for 1.5 months to prevent its spread."

Like many large zoos in India, Patna zoo reduced its staff strength and asked them to camp within its premises. Away from the daily hubbub, most animals are “cheerful", says Kumar. For others, “special activities" are held.

“Once a week, our staffers gather around the enclosures of primates like chimpanzees," he says. “They clap, make noise and try to interact with them. Sometimes the chimps also throw stones at them." That, Kumar assures, is a sign of them being in a good mood.

Some zoos have taken it upon themselves to build an online presence. The Alipore zoo in Kolkata, India’s oldest formally stated zoo, launched an app last week to give people a “virtual tour" of its premises. Viewers have an option of checking pre-recorded photos and videos of enclosures and hearing an audio commentary about its animal residents.

The Arignar Anna Zoological Park in Chennai, meanwhile, has started daily live-streams of its animals on its website. “With the visitors not around, you often see the animals relaxing and roaming around," says Sudha Ramen, deputy director of the zoo. “We have also put up cameras and showers inside the enclosures of rhinos, lions, tigers and elephants. The animals seem to be enjoying the showers, as do the viewers. We have between 60-80k page views every day since the lockdown."

While the lockdown set to end on 17 May, the ban on zoo visitors is likely to go on for much longer. “Covid-19 won’t end anytime soon," says Tejas Mariswamy, divisional forest officer of Assam State Zoo. “It’s likely we won’t open till November."

What about the revenue, then? “While the lockdown cost us over Rs20 lakh in ticket sales over the past few weeks, we are not dependent on it as we are directly funded by the government," says Tejas Mariswami from the Assam State Zoo. It’s a model common to most larger zoos in India, he adds. “But if this continues, the whole economy will be under strain. That might affect us as well."

But for most part, the lockdown has been good for the animals, adds Mariswami. This has prompted a rethink of the impact of confined spaces and lack of privacy among zoo animals. “Going forward, we’re planning bigger enclosures and integrating more than one species inside. The goal is to go a step ahead and build a habitat."

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