Deplorable conditions within the zoo exposed
The much visited Dehiwela Zoological Gardens has been subjected to much criticism from animal rights activists during the recent past.
Allegations of unfavourable conditions in enclosures, inadequate supplies of food, pilfering and polluted environment have created much criticism. With the opening of the Ridiyagama Safari Park, there were also rumours that the animals at the Dehiwela zoo will be sent there and the place would be closed down eventually.
Recently a video that went viral on social media created much disgust among the viewers as it exposed deplorable conditions within the zoo.
However, when the visited the Dehiwela zoo, the conditions looked a little better than in the past. Yet, more improvements need to be done in terms of animal welfare. Taking us on a tour around the zoo Assistant Director of the zoo Navod Abeysinghe explained how the zoo functions.
A glimpse from the past
The Dehiwela Zoological Gardens was founded in 1936 to host a variety of birds and animals. With a vision to create one of the world’s most outstanding zoological institutions with conservation, research and educational facilities, the zoo exhibits mammals, reptiles, aquatic animals and birds.
The maintenance crew has a great deal of work in ensuring the safety and well being of the animals. Cages and enclosures are cleaned daily and a veterinary surgeon inspects all animals daily. The daily observations are recorded in a diary and are sent to the senior management for approval.
In case of emergency the animals are treated at the animal hospital, which functions inside the premises. At the time the visited the place a python, suffering from a fungal infection, was being treated. Many areas of the zoo are under construction but the management has made sure that these renovations are done with minimal disturbance to the visitors.
Three nutritionists work in thie nutrition department and they always ensure that the quality of the food is very high. The standard of food is measured by its eligibility for human consumption and if there is any stale food, it will be rejected.
The internal environment is maintained in such a way as to preserve the supplies of food. The vegetables, fruits, grains and other food are often provided by suppliers and it is the responsibility of these suppliers to provide the zoo with their requirements. Grains and other dry food are often stored in excess in case of scarcity according to the seasons and other climatic changes.
According to nutritionist Usha Herath, food is supplied daily and no food from the previous day will be given to the animals. “We inform the suppliers of our requirements.
“For example we cannot give just any carrot to the birds. They too should have a specific diameter, length, weight and other measurements for us to accept the supplies. Also one special feature in this section is that we prepare the food for herbivores separately. By any chance if they are mixed with meat, they do not eat the food.”
Dos and don’ts for visitors
While inside the park, visitors too are expected to maintain decorum so as to ensure that everybody is safe within the premises.
Therefore the visitors are expected to refrain from:
- Throwing polythene bags within the premises
- Giving food to animals (i.e Sugary food for monkeys)
- Visiting restricted areas
A cafeteria also functions within the premises and the zoo officials have made sure that no person throws garbage at their own ease.
How frequently do people visit the zoo?
According to Mr. Abeysinghe, there have been 225,000 local visitors in 2015 and up until now there have been 228,000 visitors for the year 2016.
“When it comes to foreigners, they do not enjoy watching animals in these setups. They want to go into the wild and observe animals. Therefore foreign visitors are relatively few and as such by April 2016 only around 1,400 foreigners have visited the place.
The zoo also conducts daily animal performances and some of the most popular performances include those of the elephants and the sea lion,” he said.
Animal hospital and Nursery
Inside the premises, one can also find an animal hospital and a nursery that breeds babies with birth defects and those rejected by parents.
In addition to that the nursery also comprise of incubator rooms that incubate birds’ eggs.
At the time the Daily Mirror visited the nursery a lion cub, who was rejected by its mother, was sitting in its cage. Inside the nursery, two lion cubs with birth defects were seen moving around freely. The animal hospital comprises of a laboratory and a post mortem room, in case of death of animals.
Over the recent past surgeons have played an active role in saving the lives of three lion cubs that have contracted diarrhaoea. Doctors also conduct intravenous treatments to severely affected animals.
Many school and university students visit the premises regularly to learn more about the animals, their behaviours and other information. Lectures and exhibitions too are conducted to educate people about animals. The zoo library has many volumes of books which include details about different varieties of animals, their feeding patterns, breeding behaviours etc.
Renovating the premises while keeping it open to visitors is quite a challenging task, but the zoo officials have made sure that these constructions cause minimum disturbance to the visitors.
Some of the major improvements include larger enclosures for the tigers, an area for exotic species and an aquarium. The officials say that these enclosures resemble natural living conditions although they are made artificially.
Many animal rights activists are still concerned about the conditions within the zoo and even though there are developments going on, some claim that the management itself is corrupt. In her comments to the , a captive animal management expert, who wished to remain anonymous claimed that the zoo underwent a ‘quick cleanup’ after conditions inside the zoo started getting exposed.
She believes that there needs to be a short, medium and a long term plan to safeguard the living conditions of the animals.
In addition to that there are allegations of trafficking and malpractices. According to her it is a step-by-step process and the conditions within the zoo need to be gradually improved.
She also alleged that Hambantota was a key area in the illegal animal trade.
Investigations too are underway regarding the trafficking of animals. Taking these matters in to consideration the also spoke to a few experts to inquire about these allegations.
“The zoo is indirectly supporting smugglers”
Speaking to the , Samantha Gunasekara, retired Deputy Director of Customs – Biodiversity, Cultural & National Heritage Protection Division said that the import and export of animals is monitored by the Director of Wildlife.
“Prior to exporting or importing they should be defined as domestic. This definition should be highlighted either under the Flora and Fauna Protection Ordinance, Animal Production and Health Act and in the case of fish it should be stated in the Fisheries Act as well. Because there are certain fish that are restricted to be imported or exported under section 30 of the Fisheries Act which has been Gazetted and this comes under the purview of the Director of Fisheries.”
When asked about the allegations made against the zoological gardens with regard to the illegal export of animals, Mr. Gunasekara further stated that only the Department of Wildlife had the authority to give such permits.
“But before they issue the permit the department should check if the animal is legal or illegal to be traded. Because if somebody is importing an animal they are importing for captive breeding, since we only have regulations for that. “About 15 years ago there was an alleged incident where unusual quantities of star tortoises were smuggled out of the zoo.
Then back in 2012 there was an incident, where we found birds worth Rs.13.5 million, which were smuggled into the country and when we handed them to the zoo, the zoo handed them back to the alleged smuggler.
Thereafter the Zoological Department requested the Customs to not to send any animal we receive. So, what are we to do with the animals? I have all the facts and evidence to prove that this happened and I am ready to provide them on any platform. Therefore I believe that the zoo is indirectly supporting smugglers because the framework and guidelines which were exercised during the past regime are still being implemented.”
“I deny all allegations”
When asked about these allegations, Acting Director General at the Dehiwela zoo, Dhammika Malsinghe denied the allegations and claimed that several parties are trying to mislead the public.
“Recently there was a video that went viral on social media and it exaggerated several scenes within the zoo. Some of its images relating to animal cruelty were taken from India and Thailand and we deny such harassment taking place within the zoo premises.
“Before these animals perform they have a small rehearsal in the mornings and there is no harassment involved. Also there were rumours regarding the Orangutan babies. One of them died and the other baby is with the mother. These people are also blaming the construction going on inside the premises. Without constructions how can we develop the premises? The contractors are Government institutions and I do not know how people can make money when the Government is involved.”
In response to the allegation made by the retired Deputy Director of customs, Ms. Malsinghe further stated that this particular consignment of birds were imported with some questionable CITES agreement and Quarantine Permit from the Animal Production and Health Unit. This happened at the time of the previous director in 2010 and after these birds were sent to the zoo, we had to open up cages at our farm in Gonapala and keep them there. Then after a period of four weeks we received a request from the Secretary of the Ministry of Finance to release the birds. At the time of release, we charged a sum of Rs.985,000 as our expenditure for the maintenance of the birds. Thereafter that particular director has requested the Customs not to send in any animals that they get. But it is completely different now. If there are any animals at the Customs, we are ready to accept them.”