The majestic Bengal tiger sits on a raised platform of wooden planks, basking in the warm sun as passengers of a bus that has halted a few feet away crane through a small square window cut-out to indulge in ‘wildlife photography’. Despite appearing well-fed, its listless expression feels disturbingly out of place.
“Everyday, he is fed 20 kilos of food. 10 kilos beef, seven kilos chicken and three kilos mutton,” the bus driver informs me. “It is like a five-star hotel for them,” he adds with a laugh. Elephants with chained forelegs, sleeping bears and lions, tigers that strut about, uncaringly, past people hooting in a passing bus – these are the sights I witnessed on a safari ride at the Bannerghatta Biological Park, in Bengaluru two weeks back.
The Park was formed in 2002, as a cordoned-off portion of the already established Bannerghatta National Park, which has four components – a zoo, safari park, butterfly park and a rehabilitation centre for rescued animals. What began as an intended ‘picnic corner’ for nature-lovers, has expanded into a 731.88-hectare ‘reserve’, today.
The main objectives, outlined by Bannerghatta Biological Park in its mission statement, are to strengthen national efforts in “ex-situ conservation” ie preserving a species outside its natural habitat and two, to inspire empathy for wildlife, and generate awareness about the need for conservation of natural resources.
Let’s look at how exactly the Park is realising its second objective – visitor “education”, which is mostly done through the BBP safari. You purchase a ticket and then sit in a 30-seater bus, private car or jeep. A driver takes you on an hour’s drive. He stops at specific junctures for you to take pictures of deer, elephants, bears, lions and tigers, then drops you back.
With 26 operating buses that each make, up to seven trips between 9 am and 5 pm, seven days a week, these animals do not get any form of respite from human observation. In the evenings, the lions and tigers are lured back into cells with food.
Without the presence of even a single wildlife education officer or guide, how does the park expect to convey the message of ‘conservation’? In fact, officials remain silent even when animals are taunted. There have been several instances of the animals attempting attacks on the safari vehicles, one that occurred as recently as January this year where a lion attacked a hired vehicle by trying to mount it and bite through the glass. Coincidentally, the same vehicle was attacked in September 2016. Recent investigations reveal that the driver provoked the animals to create ideal photo opportunities for his passengers and secure generous tips.
Although the park uses the concept of ‘bar-less moated enclosures’, the actual space allocated is depressingly low. As of 2013, the numbers were – 20 hectares for bears, 14 hectares for white and Bengal tigers, and a mere 6 hectares for lions.
The lack of space and constant infringement by visitors, places severe stress on these wild animals which really begs the question- how different is their plight from the animals housed in the zoo?
In a 20-year expansion master plan submitted in 2014 to the Central Zoo Authority in New Delhi, BBP officials blatantly state, “The display of animals in the present day context in Bannerghatta Zoo is neither for an education nor for conservation values. The display is more for recreation to attract the visitors for eco-recreation value.” The report goes on to list constraints such as cramped spaces in enclosures, contamination risks due to inadequate drainage systems, sub-standard clinical facilities and lack of readily available expertise.
Another important aspect to note is that the staff overseeing crucial activities such as visitors’ management, animal feeding and clinical care, are outsourced. The lack of consistency and understanding of behavioural patterns surely has a definitive impact on the quality of lives of the animals. But is the problem really as simple as blaming the park authorities?
Bannerghatta Biological Park is self-financed with income collected for entry fees for the zoo, safari and butterfly park, and donations. They claim that almost 70% of collected revenue goes towards covering daily expenses of feed and fodder, employee wages and other administrative expenses, the park struggles to have enough funds for development, thereby existing merely to attract visitors to bring in enough revenue to keep it running. In the year 2014-2015, BBP’s total revenue was 24.5 crores. However, most of the projects undertaken in the same year were related to the construction of new enclosures in the zoo and other renovations to the park. The annual report for 2014-2015 mentions a vague plan to launch a ‘School connect’ programme without any specific objectives.
What could have been a fantastic opportunity to educate people on the importance of understanding and respecting wildlife, has been transformed into the novelty of seeing such regal creatures up close in protected vehicles. The safari is merely an extension of the zoo and gives naïve visitors the illusion of witnessing a piece of true wildlife when in fact the animals have been stripped off all natural instincts and are sedated with over-feedingThey are also obviously frustrated with being used as showpieces.
Increasing human-wildlife conflict, poaching, and climate change are adversely impacting India’s biodiversity. The Wildlife Protection Act of 1972 was passed by the parliament to provide a comprehensive framework for protection of wildlife. Despite our legislative efforts, the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed 132 species of plants and animals in India as critically endangered, including the Asiatic lion and Bengal tiger.
If we do not draw bold lines between conservation, education and entertainment, we are pushing these species on a path of accelerated extinction. Parks like Bannerghatta Biological Park play a crucial role in transforming society’s attitude towards wildlife. Taking steps such as correcting visitors when they jeer at animals, engaging children to foster compassion and prioritising the essence of sustainability over tourism, can serve the long-term mission of translating education into real results.
Sangeetha Bhaskaran is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the batch of February-March 2017.