<%-- Page Title--%> Opinion <%-- End Page Title--%>

<%-- Volume Number --%> Vol 1 Num 127 <%-- End Volume Number --%>

October 17, 2003

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Sorry Tales of Zoo Inmates

Aziz Amirul

Famed for its regal grandeur and marauding behaviour over all other wild creatures of the mangrove habitat of the Sunderbans, the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger is one of the best reasons why eco-tourism may have a future in Bangladesh.

Unfortunately though, this very species of the world's largest cats is the main target of poachers who, ever since, are on the prowl to hunt the tigers to earn handsome amounts. Illegal trading of hides, bones and organs of the animal in the international black market is quite rampant. Moreover, the demands from producers and clients of so-called 'Chinese medicinal products' are also taking a toll on tigers. The crime often goes unabated though there is maximum punishment, that is, death sentence for the offence of killing tigers, a maximum of around 450 of which are believed to be left inside the Bangladeshi territory of the mangroves of Sunderbans.

History was created on September 10 this year when five employees of the Dhaka Zoo were handed over to the law enforcement angency and were tried for the crime of killing a zoo animal. The verdict was imprisonment of fourteen years with fines of Taka twenty thousand each for their alleged involvement in the poisoning and eventual killing of four Bengal Tigers. Their am was to procure the creatures' skins and to halt a transfer of 32 zoo staffers during November 1996.

Vets collect tissue from the infected lump of ailing tigress Shankari at Chittagong Zoo before she died.

Negligence and misappropriation of allotted funds in zoos is a common transgression here in Bangladesh where conservation of wildlife and overall ecosystem remains a topic of minor importance. It is an issue usually dealt with indifference by the concerned authorities with very little effectiveness of the Wildlife Preservation Act of 1974.

Besides Dhaka, several other smaller zoos lie across the country, of which three are situated in Chittagong, Rajshahi and Rangpur. Unfortunately these zoos are infested with all sorts of irregularities the most notorious allegation of all being the mishandling of allotted food supplies of zoo creatures which are allegedly sold in open markets or shared among employees' for personal gains.

Death of creatures out of laxity and malnutrition or unhygienic conditions, which are easily avoidable, is another major problem in local zoos. The latest victims were four animals and a bird at Chittagong zoo - one lion, two deer, one heron and a monkey, according to news reports. These creatures died within a week during the first half of August this year.

Leading wildlife experts of the country claim that the Chittagong zoo does not have a strong supervision system and those five inmates of the zoo have died from food poisoning, but according to zoo officials and post-mortem report, the expired lion, aged 23, died a natural death.

According to highly placed sources, the food supplied to the animals is unhygienic and of sub-standard, which cause various diseases and most of the zoos do not have full-time veterinary surgeon-cum-caretakers who can check on the foods' quality.

The Chittagong zoo has even more woeful stories involving carelessness with its caged inmates, especially with Bhim, the male Bengal tiger that managed to escape from its barred enclosure twice within a year, the last time this August when the big cat's caretaker mistakenly left the cage-door open during feeding hours. On both occasions the tiger retuned to its cage apparently being nervous and unaccustomed to the scamper and screaming of the crowds.

But of all the recent zoo incidents, the worst took place in the same zoo in Chittagong on the early hours of the first day of October this year when Shankari, the lone tigress and mate of Bhim, passed away of a malignant condition at a mature age of seventeen. A darling of the regular zoo visitors of the country, Shankari was once an important resident of the Mirpur Zoo in Dhaka but was relocated in Chittagong some ten years back along with Bhim, also currently running seventeen, one year short of a tiger's maximum life-span.

Shankari was first diagnosed with a tumour and was operated upon by a team of vets on July 21 last. According to news reports, alleged negligence in post-operative care and lack of proper treatment and medications led Shankari to fall ill; hence the tigress was once again placed under the surgeons' knife on September 13. Tissue biopsy revealed conditions of Adeno Carcinoma, an advanced staged cancer.

It was the pre-dawn hours of October 1, 2003 when some loud yet painful growling could be heard from inside the cage of ailing Shankari. Everyone knew that the tigress's days were coming to an end but hardly thought of the worst to come so early. Daylight spread her veils across the lush green surroundings of the zoo compound while the caretaker of the tigers along with a veterinary specialist reached the cage of the big cats. But by then it was all over. The huge lifeless body of Shankari was found lying in a stiff condition leaving aside a desolate and lonely Bhim to mourn the sad demise of his life partner.

The sad tale could end here provided the authorities had quickly disposed off the body following formal procedures of post-mortem, etc. But there was further agony left for her distressed partner, Bhim to witness. Starting from dawn till around, five o'clock in the evening, for over twelve hours, there remained in the cage the decaying corpse of Shankari, leading to a dreadful stench with risk of spreading germs all around something which forced the visiting guests to leave the zoo premises while covering then faces with handkerchieves. The authorities finally had time only around sunset to carry away the badly decomposed body for mere dumping somewhere behind the zoo office.

'It seems better to let the poor animals roam around in the wild and die some untimely, rude deaths in the hands of the ever-increasing influential poachers rather than to be locked up in zoos to be neglected and assaulted in the worst possible manner by the untrained and careless zoo authority', was the comment of a grief-stricken zoo visitor who witnessed the shoddy treatment of Shankari's corpse throughout the day till evening.



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